Two Bills Overhaul Voter-Approved State Questions

Thursday, February 9th 2017, 7:09 pm

State lawmakers postponed action on two bills that would have changed a law Oklahomans voted on just three months ago. 

Back in November 60-percent of Oklahoma voters said they wanted changes in the way non-violent drug offenders were sentenced, so they passed State Questions 780 and 781.  The new rules aren’t even in place yet, and lawmakers are already working to make changes.

A Senate committee put off hearing the two bills, Senate Bills 256 and 398, which would essentially change what Oklahomans voted on in November.  Voters agreed some felony crimes should be lowered to misdemeanors to help reduce the prison population.

The authors of 256 and 398 say they’re making changes because they don’t think voters really understood what they were voting on.

"I think that many of those who voted for it did not understand what the consequence of this was going to be,” bill author Senator Michael Bergstrom (R) District 1 said.

Bill author Senator Darcy Jech (R) District 26 said the law lacks teeth.

"When that bill goes into effect, after the first or the 21st it's still a misdemeanor. We're not helping these people.” Jech said, “So that's my hope that at some point we can help these people."

Authors of the bills say they want a ‘three strikes you’re out’ provision, where offenders won’t be charged with a felony until their third offense.  Opponents of the bills say, the voters have spoken.

"Adding graduated sanctions is actually a good idea,” said Andrew Speno with the Right on Crime Initiative, “Adding draconian graduated sanctions is not a good idea and it undermines the goal of them what we had in mind which is to reduce our prison population."

Kris Steele with TEEM added, "The policy changes contained and Senate Bill 256 and Senate Bill 398 revert back to the old paradigm of the dressing addiction and mental illness through incarceration through prison and through punishment."

Steele suggests letting the law go into effect before trying to fix problems with it.

"It is taking corrections policy for individuals who battle addiction and mental illness and the completely opposite direction from where the people of the state of Oklahoma have expressed that they would like to go."

The bills authors say they are willing to sit down and talk with opponents and try to reach some agreement. They say their bills are just a starting point.