Will legislative Republicans kill criminal justice reform for a second time?
Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
OKLAHOMA CITY – Former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, who now runs Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, is encouraging a freshman Republican member of the state House of Representatives “to take a deep breath, relax and stop misleading the public.”
Steele issued a press release with that comment, in response to an earlier missive from state Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell.
The latter asserted State Question 780, approved in November, removed punishments that target drug dealers who aim at children. Downing is sponsoring House Bill 1482, a measure he asserts is needed to fix S.Q. 780.
In a press release (dated January 18 when emailed to this reporter, but received Feb. 15 – and correctly dated now on the House website), Rep. Downing claimed ballot language for the historic state question was deceptive because:
“Voters did not read a single mention of children, schools or other locations where kids are targets of drugs, yet the changes in the laws target children, just as one example by reducing from a felony to a misdemeanor the crime for an adult to possess heroin on an elementary school playground for an unlimited number of offenses.”
Former Speaker Steele countered, in a release dated and received February 16, “Drug dealing or distributing near a school is absolutely a crime and remains a felony crime under S.Q. 780, while simple drug possession near a school zone gets addressed with treatment rather than incarceration.
Oklahomans should not be led to believe that drug dealing in school zones is a misdemeanor under the state questions they approved because it absolutely remains a felony.
“Simple possession of a drug at or near a school is not drug distribution, and is far more indicative of addiction, which is why voters made it a misdemeanor requiring treatment. If a student in a school zone has a small amount of a drug with no intention to distribute it, evidence clearly shows they need treatment, not prison.
“The freshman representative’s press release is over-sensationalized and mischaracterizes his bill to totally undo the voters’ work. The bill is a Trojan Horse attempt to roll back SQ 780. [Downing’s] bill is written in a way that causes a large geographic portion of the state to be a felony drug possession zone that turns addicts into felony prisoners instead of patients – exactly the opposite of what voters wanted.
No one in the large, diverse coalition that supported these state questions wants anything but the safest environment for our children, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.”
The House Judiciary Committee sent Downing’s measure on the floor last week.
In a response to questions from CapitolBeatOK, current House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said through his spokesman, “Speaker McCall believes that Representatives Downing and Biggs make a compelling case that information that would have been important to voters was not included in the ballot language. He believes that information should be presented to the members of the House for an up or down vote.”
During his weekly meeting with Capitol reporters, McCall seemed ambivalent as he answered a question as to whether or not any other ballot propositions approved in the 2016 general election would be subject to post-election revisions at the Legislature.
He noted that State Questions 780 is a statutory measure. Statutory proposals can be revised by the Legislature without popular approval.
Also statutory and approved by voters in the November election is S.Q. 781, with treatment-oriented reforms for non-violent drug offenders that can be funded with savings – if the provisions in S.Q. 780 take effect.
In his own statement last week, former Speaker Steele concluded, “Legislators should listen to the will of the voters and focus on our true problems like fixing the broken budget, improving education and getting addicted Oklahomans the treatment they need. The use of school children as a political prop to disguise a legislative attempt to continue criminalizing addiction underscores why voters sidelined legislators and took this matter into their owns hands in November.”
The Legislature approved, and Governor Mary Fallin signed into law, a previous package of criminal justice reforms in 2012. However, those measures were never fully implemented after Gov. Fallin “slow-played” implementation.
Many local district attorneys had lobbied against the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), as the earlier legal reforms were popularly known. Then, Steele’s successor (Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton) had a mixed record on criminal justice reform, while Fallin let a couple of years pass before she began to renew her support for reforms.
The governor’s own task force on criminal justice launched in 2015 advocated incremental reforms along the lines of JRI. Fallin backed last year’s ballot initiatives, applauding popular approval in post-election comments.
Last year, many prosecutors and some law enforcement officials broke strongly against State Questions 780 and 781 in the latter states of the general election campaign. However, despite those criticisms the two state questions prevailed easily. S.Q. 780 garnered 831,123 yes votes (58.23 percent of the total cast), while S.Q. 781 gained 795,475 votes in support (56.22 percent of the total). Pressing for approval, former Speaker Steele fashioned an unprecedented bi-partisan coalition with advocates across the political spectrum.
Downing is a former prosecutor. On H.B. 1482, he is working closely with state Rep. Scott Biggs, R- Chickasha, who was a persistent critic of the two state questions.