Fact Check: Oklahomans are safer due to SQ780

Author: Ashley Bender

We have a fact check in response to one of the recent media reports that spread misrepresented claims that public safety is in question due to State Question Q780 reforms that recategorized low-level drug & property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

Last week a news outlet published a misleading report on recidivism among people released from prisons in Oklahoma because of the retroactive application of SQ780 — an attempted hit piece on a successful reform. Though we hope everyone reads this article in totality, here is a short format look on Twitter from Felicity Rose, a key advocate and voice on this issue.

What is SQ780?

SQ780 reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes to misdemeanors, making them punishable by fines or jail days instead of prison time. The premise is to treat addiction as a health condition, allowing people who battle an addiction to be treated like patients instead of prisoners.

This was overwhelmingly passed by voters. Still today this measure has a 76% voter approval rate. This reform kept thousands of people out of prison and saves taxpayers an estimated $10 million every year.

But, SQ780 wasn't retroactive, meaning it did not help people who were still in prison with old possession felonies. The legislature passed HB1269 in response, setting up a new commutation process to help people like Felicia, Juanita, Kayla and so many other who have now been able to go home to their families.

In November of 2019, Governor Stitt commutated the sentences of 500 people. Making that the largest mass commutation in the history of the nation.

What did the article get wrong?

The article begins by stating that of the 500 people who received the mass commutation, only 23 individuals have ended up being sentenced to serve additional time in prison. That’s about 4% — or an eighth of the national return-to-prison rate of 32% within two years. That’s an incredible number and not one that should be used to promote a false narrative. Oklahomans should be proud to see the positive effects of SQ780 throughout various communities in that state. Instead of lifting this or giving the national context, the article focuses on arrests. Arrests are a terrible measure of recidivism because they do not capture behavior, they capture policing patterns, socioeconomic status, and system-involvement.

Commenting on this idea and the more broadly the desires of Oklahomans, Kris Steele, the Executive Director of TEEM, stated,

“In 2016, Oklahomans across the state clearly said we do not need to be punishing individuals who commit low-level property crimes or simple possession with severe and lengthy prison sentences. Oklahomans have already spoken on this issue, and the message remains clear: Our state must stop criminalizing addiction, poverty, and mental health crises. If we’re spending all of our money on incarceration, that’s not going to leave us anything to have to actually invest in treatment."

The re-arrest rate reported by the media is just slightly lower than the national re-arrest rate reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But the return-to-prison rate is much lower than the national average, which tells us most of these re-arrests were probably not substantiated or not serious.

Despite the fact that there is overwhelming evidence that supports the successes of SQ780, that data was neglected to be considered in this article. From 2017-2020 property crimes declined by 6.34%, including 6.93% in Tulsa. Robbery has declined by an outstanding 25% statewide. Violent Crime in general has declined by 5.8% in Oklahoma City and an incredible 34.5% as recorded by the Tulsa County Sheriff. Violent crime in the state as a whole has declined by 3.4% from 2018-2020. All of this is compared to a national violent crime average that actually rose 1% since 2017.

On top of the $10 million a year that is saved by SQ780, it costs over $19,000 a year to incarcerate an individual in Oklahoma. It costs around $6,000 a year to provide treatment and that varies depending on if it is out-patient or in-patient as well as the level and intensity of treatment.

The article goes on to mention reasons for only about 70 of these arrest stating that around 35 are for violent crimes and 35 are for old warrants that exist that existed before the individual when to prion. But the rest are just vaguely hand-waved as “mostly drug crimes.”

In fact, they speak about an individual who was arrested for “trespassing” the day after release. He had a substance use problem and no place to live and squatted in an empty house. This is a tragedy that points to the many problems left to solve in Oklahoma, not an indictment of freeing people. Keeping people in prison because they suffer from addiction, poverty, and don’t have safe housing is not a good plan, and the voters of Oklahoma were right to demand better solutions.

Sarah, a resident of Tulsa, detailed at an interim study on the need for expungement reform, how her life has drastically changed since being able to restart her life. She states,

"I have three kids from my first marriage and they’re my everything. I had a criminal record from a struggle with pills more than a decade ago. As a single mom, all I wanted was to finish my college degree, find a higher paying job in the healthcare system, and buy my kids a house in a better neighborhood. I’ve had so many jobs over the years pass me over because of my record. A couple of employers were honest about the fact that they would have called me back except for my record. I went to an expungement event in Tulsa in 2019, and the lawyers there were finally able to help me clear my old record. Since then, I’ve got a better paying job, my kids and I have moved to a better neighborhood, and I have started going to school remotely last year. I am so grateful I’ve gotten the chance to build a better life for my kids. I think so many people out there who mess up when they are just kids - they need another chance."

That’s why alongside SQ780 voters also passed SQ781. State Question 781 created a fund that consists of the money saved by SQ780. The savings specifically come from not incarcerating individuals. The funds were then directed to be distributed to counties for the purpose of funding rehabilitative programs, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. This still has not happened yet.

Though there is hope in this regard. House Bill 3294 which was authored by Representative Justin Humphrey (R-Lane) was introduced this session. He stated he wants "a bill that would make legislators abide by the law." The bill that would require legislators to fund mental health and substance abuse treatment is working its way through the Oklahoma Senate after being passed unanimously March 24 by the House.

All in all, we need to acknowledge the dangers behind publishing half-baked truths about criminal legal reform. Oklahoma has been a top incarcerator for decades, through the efforts of SQ780 and other reform measures we are down from the top incarcerator in the world, to third in the United States.

We will not allow for sensationalized media to twist the truth of progress along with the truth that the public continues to support SQ780 and all the good that it has and will continue to bring Oklahoma. Finally, the reality of the mass November commutation is that a majority of people have not returned to prison, only 4% — or an eighth of the national return-to-prison rate of 32% within two years.