Why Oklahomans rejected the criminal justice reform 805 offered
November 8, 2020
A wide swath of urban and rural voters rejected State Question 805, bringing a yearlong campaign by criminal justice reform advocates to modify Oklahoma’s sentencing laws to an undramatic end.
All 77 counties opposed the ballot initiative, which would have modified the state constitution and prevented courts from imposing sentence enhancements on any person who has never been convicted of a violent felony. State Question 805 defined a violent felony as any offense listed in Title 57, section 571 of the Oklahoma State Statutes as of Jan. 1, 2020.
State Question 805 was most competitive in Oklahoma, Cleveland and Comanche counties, where between 46 and 48% of voters supported the measure. In each of the state’s 69 remaining counties, including urban Tulsa County, more than 60% of voters opposed the state question.
Campaign finance documents show the Yes on 805 group, led by attorney Sarah Edwards and former House speaker Kris Steele, generated more than $8 million in monetary and in-kind contributions from July through September. Most of the money came from out-of-state interest groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Fwd.Us, a San Francisco and Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization that advocates for prison reform.
Meanwhile, Oklahomans United Against 805 raised just $133,400 throughout the same July through September period. Most of their contributions came from individuals.
Though lacking in funds, the opposition group found widespread support from elected officials and law enforcement groups in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 3.
Attorney General Mike Hunter, Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado voiced their opposition to State Question 805 during an Oct. 27 press conference. The next day, Oklahoma County Sheriff Candidates Wayland Cubit and Tommie Johnson III held a joint press conference to speak out against the state question.
“I am the first person who will fight for criminal justice reform, and criminal justice reform needs to happen so desperately,” Johnson, a Republican who was elected Oklahoma County Sheriff on Tuesday night, said at the press conference. “But I don’t want to do it if it puts public safety in jeopardy.”
Opponents of State Question 805 argued that a yes vote would have made it difficult to punish repeat offenders of domestic abuse, driving under the influence and other serious crimes not listed in Title 57, section 571 of the Oklahoma State Statutes as of Jan. 1. Supporters of 805 argued that courts would still be able to take prior criminal history into account and impose maximum sentences on repeat offenders.
Had State Question 805 been enacted as a constitutional amendment, it would have been difficult for the legislature to change the list of crimes eligible for sentence enhancement. Lawmakers would have been required to initiate their own state question and bring it before voters on an upcoming ballot.
Tricia Everest, co-founder of family justice center Palomar and chair of Oklahomans United Against 805, said lawmakers now have the freedom to pass criminal justice reform that adequately protects victims.
“Oklahomans are ready for responsible reform,” Everest said during a virtual press conference Tuesday night. “Kris Steele and the ACLU won’t dictate what it is.”
In a press release issued Tuesday night, Edwards said criminal justice reform advocates will now focus their attention on the next legislative session.
“Tonight, we hope that members of our legislature and the Governor will live up to their word to take action to tackle our state’s extreme sentencing laws,” Edwards, the president of Yes on 805, said. “We have built a powerful bipartisan movement that will continue to fight for common-sense reforms in the months ahead. We demand the Oklahoma Legislature act on common-sense criminal justice reform this legislative session.”
Though its prison population has declined during the coronavirus pandemic, Oklahoma has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the U.S. A criminal justice task force report released in February 2017 during former Gov. Mary Fallin’s second term identified Oklahoma’s sentence enhancement laws as a contributor to prison overcrowding.
In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780, a citizen-initiated ballot initiative that reclassified several drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The ballot initiative found support in rural and urbans areas of the state.