OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma residents on Nov. 3 will decide the fate of a criminal justice reform measure.
They will also determine whether funds going to the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, called TSET, can be diverted to be used to garner federal dollars for Medicaid expansion.
State Question 805 would prevent the use of prior nonviolent convictions to increase prison sentences for people convicted of new nonviolent crimes. It would not apply to those convicted of a violent crime.
“Oklahoma has some of the highest incarceration rates in the country,” said Kris Steele, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform director. “We have led the world in female incarceration per capita since 1991 and have the highest among African Americans.”
He said Oklahoma sends more to prison than any other state and for longer periods of time, costing the state.
“Under 805, people convicted of nonviolent crimes could still be sentenced up to the maximum allowable time in prison for that crime, but not receive additional time beyond the maximum because of the past conviction,” Steele said.
The measure would not apply to those convicted of sex crimes, Steele said.
It would apply retroactively, letting those affected petition the court for a reduction, Steele said.
Steele said it will reduce the state prison population by 8.5% when it is implemented.
It is a constitutional amendment, meaning changes to it would have to go to a vote of the people rather than be altered by lawmakers.
Angela Marsee is district attorney for Custer, Bechkam, Washita, Roger Mills and Ellis counties. She serves as president of the District Attorneys Council and chairwoman of the Oklahoma District Association. The association voted to oppose the measure.
“It is bad public policy,” she said. “It is dangerous for public safety and as well as crime victims.”
The measure is limited to the violent crime list that existed on Jan. 1, 2020, which has 52 crimes. There are more than 1,200 crimes in the state, Marsee said.
“There are hundreds of crimes that are not covered by 805,” Marsee said.
Some domestic violence crimes are not on the violent crime list, she said. Animal cruelty, stalking and driving under the influence are not considered a violent crime, she said.
People that repeatedly victimize Oklahoma citizens should not be treated a first-time offender, she said.
“It prevents judges and juries from being able to increase punishment for habitual offenders,” she said.
“The governor believes State Question 805 is not the right way to accomplish criminal justice reform, as it would peel back enhancements for DUIs, human trafficking and domestic violence in our constitution,” said Baylee Lakey, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kevin Stitt.
State Question 814 has not gotten the same attention as State Question 805.
Currently, 75% of the money the state gets from the 1998 multistate legal settlement with tobacco companies goes into an endowment which was approved by voters. The earnings on the $1.3 billion endowment are used to fund tobacco cessation and other programs, including cancer research.
The remainder is for legislative appropriations.
The state question seeks to lower the endowment’s share to 25% and send the rest of the dollars to cover Medicaid expenses.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Kim David, R-Porter, said the change would allow the state to draw down additional federal dollars to pay for Medicaid expansion.
“The programs that TSET currently pays for, like tobacco cessation, obesity and health programs, will now be covered in Medicaid,” she said.
The state question only applies to new dollars, she said. It does not touch the endowment, she said.
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson was a moving force behind the creation of TSET.
“The reason the trust was created was because we did not trust the Legislature to spend that money on health,” Edmondson said. “We still don’t. And 20 years ago, more than two-thirds of Oklahomans agreed.”
The measure is not necessary to pay for Medicaid expansion, which voters approved in June.
“It is the law,” Edmondson said. “And it is up to the Legislature to fund it.”
State Question 814 is expected to garner an opposition campaign.
Matt Glanville is the Oklahoma government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. His organization supported Medicaid expansion, but opposes State Question 814.
“We understand the Legislature needs the money to expand, but we don’t want them to use cancer research and tobacco cessation money to do it,” Glanville said.
“The governor supports State Question 814, which will redirect funds to the Legislature to pay for Medicaid expansion,” Lakey, the governor’s spokeswoman, said.