Improving the criminal justice system has long been a priority for conservatives across the country, including state leaders and voters right here in Oklahoma. It is no surprise why — public safety is not best-served by overcrowded, costly prisons.
In 2016, Oklahoma voters elected Donald Trump on the same night they approved two important criminal justice reforms on the ballot. In the four years since, President Trump signed historic criminal justice legislation at the federal level; Republicans in Oklahoma’s Legislature have passed meaningful reforms, and Gov. Kevin Stitt has commuted hundreds of unfair prison sentences. Most importantly, crime rates went down.
This year, State Question 805 gives Oklahoma voters another chance to improve public safety and the criminal justice system. This measure will limit extreme prison sentences for nonviolent crimes and reduce unnecessary government spending. As leaders in the conservative movement for criminal justice reform, we are proud to support it.
SQ 805 is a commonsense reform that will eliminate harsh sentencing penalties (sometimes up to a life sentence) for people who have more than one conviction for a nonviolent offense. These repeat sentence penalties are added on top of a base sentence. There is no evidence they improve public safety, but they are a major contributor to Oklahoma’s high imprisonment rate and bloated corrections budget.
People in Oklahoma serve 70% longer in prison for nonviolent property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes compared to other states. These long sentences tear apart families and deny people the opportunity to seek redemption and reach their full potential. They also impose a huge cost to taxpayers, who are currently contributing more than half a billion dollars to Oklahoma’s prison system each year.
Take for example the man serving a 20-year prison sentence for stealing a lawn mower. Or the woman who was sentenced to 15 years for stealing baby necessities. Consider for a moment the Army veteran who was sentenced to 17 years for pawning a stolen laptop or the 59-year old woman serving a 20-year sentence for writing $850 in bad checks.
Voting yes on SQ 805 is a vote to end these decades-long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, saving Oklahoma taxpayers millions of dollars and giving people a real second chance. In fact, SQ 805 would safely reduce Oklahoma’s prison population by 8.5% — saving taxpayers at least $142 million. That’s more people in the workforce, less money to bureaucrats and less pressure for tax hikes.
Americans for Tax Reform and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs share a common mission: Oppose government overreach and support freedom. It’s clear to us that any policy resulting in senseless, decades-long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes — without improving public safety — is a policy ripe for reform.
We would not support SQ 805 if it gave anyone a free pass. The measure does not apply to people convicted of violent crimes, and people convicted of nonviolent crimes can still be sentenced up to the maximum prison term for their current conviction. In other words, judges and juries will still consider previous crimes when sentencing, but prosecutors will no longer be able to pile decades onto already-long sentences to encourage plea deals that result in costly prison terms without any public safety benefits.
Conservatives in Oklahoma and across America are working to improve the criminal justice system to make it more effective for victims, families and people involved in the system, while reducing costs to taxpayers. SQ 805 is an important step in that direction, and we are proud as conservatives to support it.
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Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) is the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Jonathan Small is the president of Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.