State question 805 campaign turns in over 260,000 signatures

Carmen Forman The Oklahoman
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

OKLAHOMA CITY — A state question campaign seeking criminal justice reforms in Oklahoma turned in more than 260,000 signatures Monday to try and put the measure before voters this year.

The Yes on 805 campaign turned in signatures to the secretary of state’s office where they will be counted and verified.

The campaign needs nearly 179,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Chairman Kris Steele said State Question 805 is the next logical step for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. SQ 805 seeks to prohibit the use of prior felony convictions to enhance sentences for nonviolent crimes.

If passed, the question would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population, which would in turn, reduce state spending on prisons and allow those funds to be used in a more proactive manner, proponents said. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.

“Oklahoma voters need the opportunity to take the next step and vote ‘yes’ to end the use of harsh and ineffective sentence penalties that are above and beyond the maximum sentences already in law,” said Yes on 802 President Sarah Edwards. “Ending these excessive sentence penalties will free up much needed resources that can be used for education, job training and mental health services.”

If passed, the measure would allow people serving time for nonviolent crimes who were sentenced with a sentence enhancement to petition a court to have their sentences shortened. Sentence enhancements, which are largely requested at a prosecutor’s discretion, can add additional prison time for repeat offenders.

Asked if any of Oklahoma’s district attorneys support SQ 805, Steele pointed to a prosecutor for Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties.

It is not clear how many offenders could have their sentences shortened should the state question pass.

The coronavirus pandemic tripped up the campaign’s timeline. Instead of using the full 90-day window to gather signatures, the Yes on 805 campaign stopped 80 days in as COVID-19 started spreading across the country. More recently, the campaign successfully petitioned the Oklahoma Supreme Court to compel the secretary of state’s office to accept the collected signatures.

Current circumstances have sparked a larger conversation about how to reduce the number of people in Oklahoma prisons and jails, Steele said.

“The fact that we’re in a pandemic … has also brought considerable attention to the need to safely reduce our prison population,” he said.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform successfully advocated for State Questions 780 and 781, which reclassified simple drug possession and some minor property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies and directed how the state could use the cost savings from the changes.

The secretary of state’s office will begin counting the SQ 805 signatures this week. The count could take days or weeks to complete.