Okla. group files petition to reduce prison population

The petition comes on the heels of a mass commutation also aimed at solving overcrowding in state prisons


Sean Murphy
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Days after more than 450 Oklahoma inmates walked out of prison in the nation's largest single-day prisoner release, a group that championed that effort launched a new initiative Tuesday aimed at further reducing the state's high incarceration rate.

The bipartisan group of business, political and religious leaders filed a constitutional ballot initiative on Tuesday that would prohibit prosecutors from using previous felony convictions to enhance sentences in nonviolent cases. It would also allow people who already had such sentence enhancements to petition the courts for relief.

Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele speaks to the group who launched an initiative petition that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates. (Photo/AP)
Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele speaks to the group who launched an initiative petition that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates. (Photo/AP)

Once the petition is finalized, the group will have 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The same group launched a successful initiative in 2016 that reduced criminal penalties and ultimately helped lead to the release of hundreds of inmates from prison last week.

Former Republican Speaker of the Oklahoma House Kris Steele, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said the group turned to the ballot initiative because of opposition to such changes in the Legislature.

"This policy has been introduced in the Legislature for three consecutive years now, and despite widespread support from elected leaders and the voters of our state, we have not gained any traction, in large part because of the opposition of prosecutors inside this building," Steele said.

Oklahoma's 27 elected district attorneys are a powerful political force at the Capitol and have opposed many previous attempts by the Legislature to reduce the state's prison population.

Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the District Attorneys Council, declined to comment Tuesday, saying it was the first time he had seen the proposal.

Telephone and email messages left Tuesday with District Attorney Jason Hicks, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, were not immediately returned.

Oklahoma had the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation in 2017, second only to Louisiana, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The state currently spends about $500 million annually, or roughly 7% of the state's appropriated budget, on corrections.

A 2017 study on Oklahoma's prison population found the state uses prison instead of alternatives more often than other states and has significantly longer sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Oklahoma's new CEO-turned Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, has made reducing the state's prison population one of his key initiatives. He signed the mass commutation of prisoners earlier this month and personally greeted many of the inmates as they walked out the prison doors.

The 2016 state question, which reclassified drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors, passed with more than 58% of the vote.

Associated Press
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