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Popular Criminal Justice Reform State Questions not Supported by Oklahoma's Prosecutors

Studio Tulsa broadcast with proponents

Criminal justice reform is a popular issue lately in Oklahoma.

Earlier this year, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a slate of bills aimed at reducing the populations of the state's overcrowded prisons and keeping more Oklahomans from having a felony on their records.

Tuesday, voters will decide on two more criminal justice reform measures, State Questions 780 and 781. Recent polling shows support for the measures at 72 and 66 percent of likely voters, but there are significant opponents of the state questions.

Spending on TV ads in support of State Questions 780 and 781 hit nearly $1.5 million as of Oct. 31. Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said Oklahoma’s cash-strapped DAs don’t have money to spend on ads, and he didn’t hesitate when asked how many of his colleagues join him in opposing the ballot measures.

“There are 27 different district attorneys in the state of Oklahoma. We are completely unified in our opposition of propositions 780 and 781,” Kunzweiler said.

780 reclassifies drug possession as a misdemeanor, regardless of what the drug is. In doing so, it eliminates an existing section of law that makes possessing or selling any drug near a school, park or in the presence of a child a felony.

“I don’t know that anybody would agree that they would want PCP introduced into a school, nor would they want heroin introduced into a school. Now, unless somebody is possessing a trafficking amount, they’re going to be perpetually charged as a misdemeanor. That would be the playground for drug dealers.”

Kunzweiler said another consequence of making drug possession a misdemeanor involves gang activity. He said if drug possession isn’t a felony, he won’t be able to charge armed gang members trying to move drugs as felons in possession of a firearm.

“They’re going to be more emboldened to be carrying their guns with them during their transactions, and people who are involved in gang activity, they’re not there for the camaraderie of the gang," Kunzweiler said. "They’re there for the business of drug distribution.”

Kunzweiler also believes making possession a misdemeanor thwarts the goal of getting more Oklahomans into drug treatment because it takes away his hammer: the threat of prison time.

“There will be no motivation, no incentive to go into a drug court program that, in essence, would only be capped at 12 months when the actual treatment program requires anywhere from 18 months to 36 months," Kunzweiler said. "Who wants to voluntarily go into a drug court program where every week you may be [drug tested], or every week you may have to be showing up in court to be held accountable if the maximum punishment is only up to a year in the county jail?”

Kunzweiler said that defeats 781’s purpose: saving taxpayer money for use on local treatment programs.

“The cost savings that they are trying to project by saying, ‘Well, we’re going to save money by not having these drug offenders go to prison,’ is going to be completely eaten up by dealing with them at the misdemeanor county level,” Kunzweiler said.

Besides those concerns, criminal justice reform bills signed into law this year just went into effect Nov. 1. They reduce certain drug possession charges to misdemeanors, expand access to drug court and grant prosecutors more leeway in how they file drug cases, if they file them at all.

“To say we’ve got to get this done now is a misnomer. People have been working very hard to try and address this particular issue, and right when we get to the point of actually coming up with some meaningful fixes, now we’re in a situation in which all that could be undermined,” Kunzweiler said.

Kunzweiler doesn’t see lawmakers responding to the state’s prosecutors demanding a fix if 780 and 781 pass.

“I don’t know a unified front of legislators nor governors at any point that are going to go up against the argument, ‘Well, that was the voice of the people. That’s what the people wanted,'” Kunzweiler said.

The criminal justice reform steering committee behind this year’s slate of bills is developing more recommendations lawmakers will get next year. Voters, however, must decide now which solutions they want.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.