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Gene Rainbolt, a board member of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks to media after submitting a proposed initiative petition on sentence enhancement to the Oklahoma Secretary of State Office on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (Tres Savage)

The advocacy group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform filed a proposed initiative petition this afternoon to prohibit the consideration of prior non-violent felony convictions as justification to enhance sentences for additional felony convictions. The proposed language would be placed into the Oklahoma Constitution, thus requiring about 178,000 signatures from registered voters once a 90-day collection window is established.

The seven-page proposed petition (embedded below) includes definitions and features an exemption for violent felonies enumerated in Title 57, Section 571 of state statute. The petition’s third section specifies: “A former conviction for one or more felonies shall not be used to enhance the statutorily allowable range of punishment, including but not limited to minimum and maximum terms, for a person convicted, whether by trial or plea of guilty or nolo contendere, of a felony.”

It also spells out a “sentence modification” process for people already incarcerated or facing incarceration under existing sentence-enhancement rules.

“These sentence multipliers are completely at the discretion of the prosecutors of this state, and we don’t believe this is a best practice,” said Kris Steele, director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “There is no evidence that excessive sentences reduce crimes or make our communities safer. In fact, they usually make a situation worse.”

In a press scrum outside the Oklahoma Secretary of State Office, Steele was joined in remarks by Sen. George Young (D-OKC), BancFirst founder Gene Rainbolt, The Rev. Theodis Manning, Sr., and Sonya Pyles, a criminal justice reform advocate said her own criminal sentence was enhanced.

“We need to end Oklahoma’s mass incarceration crisis,” Pyles said. “I have been impacted by this for a number of years, as well as my innocent children and family.”

Rainbolt introduced himself by saying he spent his professional career in banking looking for positive rates of return on investments.

“I’ve never seen something with a greater negative return than our criminal justice system,” Rainbolt said.

Manning, who works with youth connected to the criminal justice system, praised recent progress made in Oklahoma.

“I am proud to say our state is actually moving in the right direction in terms of incarceration. However, we still have a long way to go,” Manning said. “We can lock the individual up, but we cannot lock up the root problem, which is usually addiction or another issue.”

Ahead of 2020 session, bail bill part of ongoing negotiations

The initiative petition filing by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform comes as the governor’s office, lawmakers and stakeholders are attempting to find agreement on proposals for the 2020 legislative session. In 2019, negotiations stalled during the final week of session on HB 2009, which would have limited subsequent conviction enhancements to 125 percent of a maximum sentence. Technically, HB 2009 remains active for the 2020 session.

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Similarly, SB 252 to change requirements in Oklahoma’s bail bonds system passed the Oklahoma State Senate but failed a theatrical House vote 45-49 during the final week of session. Legislative leaders are negotiating to find common ground on the topic this month, but its not immediately clear how Tuesday’s initiative petition filing may play into those bail reform discussions.

“There are so many entities that have a stake in [the bail] bill,” said Rep. Chris Kannady (R-OKC). “I’m trying to get people on one side together and the people on the other side together, get collective compromises, and then get the two sides together for the ultimate compromise to create a good bill that is best for the state as a whole.”

Kannady, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said such negotiations are delicate.

“Any time you have parties using different avenues and going in different directions, it’s very hard to end up in the same place,” Kannady said.

Steele said his organization appreciates past legislative actions and the support Gov. Kevin Stitt on the topic of criminal justice reform, and he said OCJR intends to be engaged in 2020 legislative proposals as well.

“This is just one piece of the puzzle. This initiative is intended to run parallel to the efforts that are taking place within the Legislature and in the governor’s Restore Task Force,” Steele said. “We believe criminal justice reform in Oklahoma deserves multiple approaches.”

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Background on criminal justice reform, initiative petitions

In 2018, Gov. Mary Fallin signed SB 649 to end sentence enhancements for drug-possession felonies. That bill stands as an example of the incremental criminal justice reforms passed by the Legislature in recent years, but Oklahoma’s most sweeping reform was the 2016 passage of State Question 780, which reclassified drug possession and theft crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors. SQ 780 was a statutory change led by OCJR and largely opposed by law enforcement like the state’s district attorneys.

Last legislative session, lawmakers made SQ 780’s reclassifications retroactive to those already incarcerated, a change that caused the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to recommend more than 500 individuals to Stitt for advanced single-stage commutation. Days later, hundreds of people were freed from prison.

Oklahomans have been asked to consider signing a bevy of initiative petitions this year, including a Medicaid expansion proposal that received more than the minimum number of signatures during its collection period. In late October, a group also filed a redistricting ballot initiative.

Oklahoma Secretary of State Michael Rogers’ office will ultimately set collection windows for both the redistricting and the sentence enhancement petitions, pending any pertinent court challenges.

Read the initiative petition language

(Update: This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, to include the submitted version of the initiative petition.)