State Questions 776, 781 and 781

Oklahoma citizens may initiate statewide legislation via ballot measures in the form of either initiated state statutes or initiated constitutional amendments. In Oklahoma, citizens also have the power to repeal legislation via veto referendum.  We covered this last week here. This week we're taking a look at three of the state questions that will be on the ballot that pertain to criminal justice issues.  

State Question 776 is a type of legislatively referred constitutional amendment that will appear on the ballot as a measure because the Oklahoma State legislature voted to put it before the voters.  

This measure would add a new Section 9A to the Oklahoma Constitution of Article II.  It states that methods of execution can be changed and that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment.

The legislative referendum would change the state constitution to allow the Oklahoma Legislature the power to determine methods of execution not expressly outlawed by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  

The measure provides an alternative method for inflicting punishment of death. For example, punishment of death shall be carried out by lethal injection, if that is considered unconstitutional by a higher court or, if the drug is unavailable at the time, the sentence of death shall be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia.  If both are considered unconstitutional at the time, then the sentence of death shall be carried out by electrocution.  If that method is also unavailable or considered unconstitutional than the sentence shall be carried out by firing squad.  

Those in favor of adding the new section to the Oklahoma Constitution reason that with the Death Penalty being legal in Oklahoma, this will protect the states ability to carry it out at a higher-constitutional level.  This measure would give Oklahoma options to enforce the death penalty.

Those against State Question 776 believe the added measure, if passed, would make it more difficult to rule Oklahoma?s death penalty unconstitutional.  Opposition to the death penalty is growing, mainly due to the increase of exonerations.  

State Questions 780 & 781 are both initiated state statutes.  That means they would each be a new law that the state would adopt by the vote of the people.  However, State Question 781 would only go into effect if both it and State Question 780 passed.  If State Question 780 did not pass but State Question 781 did ? it would not become law.  State Question 780 is not contingent upon the passage of State Question 781.  

SQ 780 would amend current Oklahoma laws by reclassifying some drug possession and property crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor.  The drug possession reclassification would only affect those who use the drugs, not those who sell or make the drugs. Regarding the reclassification of property crime, 780 would increase the dollar amount for property crimes from $500.00 to $1,000.00 to be charged with a felony.

The goal behind SQ780 is to reduce the prison population, which would then reduce the amount of state spending on incarceration.  Prosecutors would also have discretion as to how to pursue a drug case.

Those who are against SQ780 suggest that it could cause more danger to citizens since it would reduce prison time.  Additionally, opponents are concerned that even though there might be a reduction in the private prison population, the county jail population could increase due to the increase in number of misdemeanor offenders that would be charged. They suggest that county jails are not equipped to handle that type of population increase.  

If both State Questions 780 and 781 passed, SQ780 would redistribute saved revenue to counties on a proportional basis by creating the County Community Safety Investment Fund.  The money must be used for county rehabilitation programs, those organizations would provide drug and mental health treatment, job training, and education programs.  It would also require the Office of Management & Enterprise Sciences to use actual data, or its best estimate, to determine how much money was saved on a yearly basis.  This calculation would be final and would not be adjusted because of new data.  The investment fund would be a revolving fund that would not be subjected to fiscal year limitations.

If passed, it would  provide mental-health and drug rehabilitation at a local level, which means such services would be provided by county and not by state.  The revenue stream for the Fund would not be guaranteed; the money would be subjected to appropriation by the state legislature. 

The Oklahoma Academy?s 2008 Town Hall on Criminal Justice Reform?s recommendations can be seen in State Question 780, our participants recommended to the state that DAs should have discretion to file misdemeanor charges under certain circumstances, and also recommends giving judges and attorneys more flexibility for alternative treatment programs instead of prison.  Another finding from our 2008 Town Hall participants was the recommendation in raising the threshold of the dollar amount regarding felony property theft crimes. 

This analysis was provided by Lori Harless, researcher and resource coordinator for the Oklahoma Academy. You can find more information about these state questions at these links:

Jennifer Engleman | Oct 18, 2016