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Oklahoma Voters Pass Criminal Justice Reform Measures


On Tuesday, Oklahoma voters turned out at the polls to not only elect a new president for the nation, but also to vote on several key issues for the state. Among the state questions which voters approved were two criminal justice reform measures.

SQ 780, which passed with nearly 70 percent of voters saying, "Yes," reduces many of the state's nonviolent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

Interestingly, many of the crimes which voters agreed to reduce to misdemeanors were previously approved in HB 2751, which took effect November 1--a full week before the vote. However, a key reason for voting for a law that seemed to have already passed was the companion question, SQ 781, which would provide funding for community rehabilitation--substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment, for example--from the money saved by reducing certain non-violent crimes to misdemeanors. The passing of SQ 781 was contingent upon the approval of SQ 780.

Which crimes were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors under SQ 780?

Simple drug possession, meaning the possession of a controlled substance for personal use, was, in most cases, previously prosecuted as a felony. In other words, a person who possessed a small amount of methamphetamine or other Schedule I or II drug would have been guilty of a felony on the first offense. Marijuana possession was prosecuted as a misdemeanor on the first offense, but a felony on second or subsequent offenses.

SQ 780 reduces simple possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Other drug crimes, including possession with intent to distribute, drug distribution or sale, and drug trafficking remain felonies.

Additionally, SQ 780 almost mirrors HB 2751 in raising the value threshold for felony prosecution of property crimes. Under prior law, crimes such as theft, embezzlement, and fraud became felony offenses when the value of the property involved equaled $500 or greater. These offenses were only prosecuted as misdemeanors if the value of the stolen or misappropriated property or funds was under $500.

Now, Oklahomans have raised the value for prosecuting property crimes as felonies from $500 to $1000. 

According to the ballot title for SQ 780, the crimes included under the criminal justice reform measure include the following: "false declaration of a pawn ticket, embezzlement, larceny, grand larceny, theft, receiving or concealing stolen property, taking domesticated fish or game, fraud, forgery, counterfeiting, or issuing bogus checks." The new law is to take effect July 1, 2017.

SQ 781 addresses the funds that should be saved from reducing the prison population and creates a plan for using that money to establish community rehabilitation programs. The ballot title for SQ 781 reads in part as follows:

"This measure would create a fund, consisting of any calculated savings or averted costs that accrued to the State from the implementation of the Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act in reclassifying certain property crimes and drug possession as misdemeanors. The measure requires the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to use either actual data or its best estimate to determine how much money was saved on a yearly basis. The amount determined to be saved must be deposited into the Fund and distributed to counties in proportion to their population to provide community rehabilitative programs, such as mental health and substance abuse services."

Like its companion measure, SQ 781 will take effect on July 1.


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