Fault Lines
16 January 2019
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Oklahoma’s District Attorneys Don’t Care What Voters Want

March 16, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Kris Steele was tired of waiting for the Oklahoma legislature to do the right thing. The former Speaker of the House for the Oklahoma legislature had watched politics stymie his justice reforms in 2013. So, in 2016, he went right to the people with a state-wide ballot initiative. The people said yes. Now, Oklahoma’s district attorneys are trying to get their legislative allies to turn that yes into a no.

Steele’s two initiatives, State Questions 780 and 781, are fairly modest, which makes the resistance to them even more appalling. State Question 780 makes drug possession a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and a maximum of one year in prison. Previously, that charge netted a maximum of anywhere from five to fifteen years. The Initiative also increases the dollar value required for property crimes from $500 to $1000. 781 then puts savings from these reforms into drug treatment.

Oklahoma needs this. As the state’s own justice reform task force has noted, Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and the highest female incarceration rate. Over the next ten years, prison growth is expected to cost the Sooner State $1.2 billion in construction costs and $700 million in operating costs.

Meanwhile, the state faces a $900 million shortfall this year. At the same time, the Department of Corrections, pounded by budget cuts, is dealing with dangerous overcrowding. Thus, even if the state was philosophically fine with putting more of its citizens in cages, they are less able than ever to pay for the privilege.

None of this seems to matter a whit to the district attorneys of Oklahoma. Across the state, they have come out against 780 with an impressive array of misrepresentations and exaggerations. First up is DA Greg Mashburn with some standard-issue intimidation tactics:

I will have a conversation with a family with a guy who’s been six times in the county jail for meth, and then he kills somebody. And, I will have to tell them, if the law hadn’t changed, I might could have stopped this guy.

“Maybe” is a wonderful hedging word because in this big, beautiful world of possibilities, anything “may be” possible. Maybe that meth addict will kill someone. Maybe someone committing a simple assault (current penalty in Oklahoma: 30 days) will murder someone if Greg can’t lock them away. Hell, even someone with an unpaid parking ticket might kill someday. This argument is intimidation unmoored from logic.

Up next is Tulsa County Steve Kunzweiler with a little blatant lying:

Proposition 780 will make Oklahoma the most liberal drug possession state in the union — more liberal than California and Washington state.

No, Steve. It won’t. It will put you right on par with Delaware. California is slightly tougher than Oklahoma on LSD, but they also have legal weed so it’s pretty much a wash.

The worst argument however comes from Mike Boring, DA for Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas counties. Boring offers this gem:

17- and 18-year-old students caught with drugs at school need to know they’re facing serious charges, and many of them will laugh off a misdemeanor, Boring said.

But don’t worry, he’s not heartless:

“Understand, we’re not putting those kids in prison on the first offense,” Boring said. “The deal is to get their attention.”

The prospect of a misdemeanor, being imprisoned for up to a year, possibly missing their graduation, and losing up to a grand won’t get teens’ attention.  Teens don’t take the law seriously unless they’re hit with a drug felony that will make it harder to get into college, tougher to pay for college, and almost impossible to get a job. A potential lifetime of serious collateral consequences for drug possession. That’ll teach those smug little reprobates to keep from lighting up a joint under the bleachers.

All this nonsense is being marshaled to help district attorneys and their legislative allies launch a multi-pronged assault on State Question 780. The first prong of the assault is Senate Bill 512, put forward by Ralph Shortey. SB 512 effectively returns the penalties for most classes of drug possession to their pre-780 levels.

The second prong is HB 1482, proposed by Scott Biggs, a former prosecutor. The length and sanctimony of a bill’s title is inversely proportional to its candor and effectiveness, so anyone reading HB 1482, the “Keep Oklahoma Children Safe from Illegal Drugs Act of 2017,” should already have a bad feeling. The bill brings back felony status for drug possession within 1,000 feet of parks, colleges, churches, day cares, schools, and children under 12. Or, in layman’s terms, everywhere.

What makes this particularly remarkable is that none of these bills appear to be what voters want. Voters passed sentence reductions and then, more remarkably, showed up in force to protest Shortey’s SB 512. Do the legislators care? Did they withdraw the bills? Nope. SB 512 is alive and well while HB 1482 just passed the House of Representatives.

Normally, when politicians jack up criminal sanctions, there is at least popular support for whatever new and more brutal sanction they’ve devised. With State Question 780 though, Oklahoma’s legislators and district attorneys are actively advancing a set of laws over the protests of “their” constituency. It is as if they are offended to their very core that mere voters would try to take away their ability to erase up to five years of a guy’s life for a holding a joint or possessing an eight ball of coke.

This is scary. It’s one thing for voters to build the criminal justice system into a monster. It is another thing entirely for that monster to break free and fight its masters’ attempts to control it.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • REvers
    16 March 2017 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    Just for the record, the good Mr. Shortey was charged with three prostitution-related felonies today involving certain activities involving a 17-year-old boy, money, a Super 8 motel, and a wee bit o’ the Devil’s Oregano.

    The PC affidavit is a scream. It quotes the texts.

    There is no truth to the rumor that Ralphie is changing his last name to Shorteyes.

  • Links #350 | The Honest Courtesan
    19 March 2017 at 6:02 am - Reply

    […] Not a police state, nope. […]