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Special to the Altus Times

The “Yes on 780 and 781” campaign, led by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, launched the next phase of its statewide campaign following the recent proclamation that State Questions 780 and 781 will appear on the November ballot.

Robert Henry, former Oklahoma attorney general, also announced his support for State Questions 780 and 781, which would pursue a smarter approach to public safety by reducing the prison population and redirecting savings toward addressing the root causes of crime with rehabilitation, treatment, and job training services. These initiatives would return people to productive lives in their communities. Henry joins a growing roster of supporters including prominent people from Oklahoma’s faith, business, health, and law enforcement communities.

“There is tremendous support for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Since we launched our ballot initiative effort, we have experienced an outpouring of support from across the state – within the faith community, within the business community, within the law enforcement community, and from everyday Oklahomans ready to better invest in public safety,” said Kris Steele, chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “We are proud that State Questions 780 and 781 will officially be on the November ballot, so that voters will have their say and be able to make their voices heard in November. We are also proud to count Robert Henry among our growing list of supporters.”

Henry’s official support for the “Yes on 780 and 781” campaign was made public via an op-ed published in The Oklahoman and Tulsa World, where Henry argues that reform is needed now more than ever.

“The overarching goal of public policy should be to protect citizens, strengthen communities, and yield a wise return on investment,” Henry wrote. “To this end, one of the most important issues facing Oklahoma is the need to reform our criminal justice system.”

Henry’s support adds to a growing list of prominent Oklahomans calling for a smarter approach to public safety, and further bolsters the strong support among Oklahoma voters. A joint SoonerPoll/Oklahoman survey released in August found that 75 percent of Oklahoma voters said they support State Question 780, and 71 percent of Oklahoma voters said they support State Question 781.

These polls reinforce the findings of a strategy poll from earlier this year, which indicated that 77 percent of Oklahomans agree that someone who commits a low-level offense shouldn’t be saddled with a felony conviction that will follow them through life and prevent them from getting an education or a job, and 79 percent agree that instead of keeping these people behind bars, we should invest in programs that prevent crime and provide rehabilitation – the policies encompassed in State Questions 780 and 781.

The need for reform

Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate for women and the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country, which costs taxpayers nearly $500 million annually. This annual cost drains significant resources and investment from necessary rehabilitation and training programs, which ultimately enhance public safety. As the state’s prison population continues to grow – increasing by 12 percent between 2009 and 2014 – so does its price tag, which has increased by 172 percent in the past two decades.

State Questions 780 and 781

Through two ballot measures – Questions 780 and 781 – the coalition is working to pursue sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses, which trigger cost savings to be invested in evidence-based programs found effective in reducing crime and keeping communities safe.

Question 780 reclassifies certain nonviolent offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. By reclassifying these offenses, Oklahoma is able to trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending. Question 781 invests those cost savings into addressing the root causes of crime through rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior and go untreated in prison, and education and job training programs to help people find employment, and avoid going back to prison.

Removing the felony conviction for individuals battling addiction and mental illness and redirecting costs savings back to counties for treatment, education and job training services represent logical next steps toward building on and strengthening the reforms signed into law.

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Special to the Altus Times

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