Canadian County Sheriff Chris West said he is opposed to a state question that would change sentencing guidelines.
West discussed his concerns about State Question 805 Thursday during the Mustang Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Meanwhile, former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele said he supports the proposal.
Steele was expected to speak at the luncheon but was unable to arrive prior to the end of the meeting.
The Yukon Review spoke with him afterward.
SQ 805 would amend the Oklahoma Constitution by eliminating the use of a person’s criminal history to enhance the range of punishment.
Before saying why he disagreed with SQ 805, West discussed SQ 780, also known as the Oklahoma Reclassification of Some Drugs and Property Crimes as Misdemeanors Initiative, which he also opposed. The voter-approved question changed some nonviolent drug and theft-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
The goal was to reduce the number and duration of state prison sentences for those particular crimes, specifically marijuana offenses, to save the prison and jail systems money and give more funding to counties to rehabilitate criminals.
Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the country, specifically regarding women.
Steele argued this is a crisis, and with the passing of SQ 805, incarcerations could be reduced and be more in line with the national average.
The United States’ per capita of people in state and federal prisons and jails is 698 per 100,000 residents.
Oklahoma’s 2016 per capita was 1,079 per 100,000 residents.
West argued the possibility of citizens’ being victimized will increase with the passage SQ 805.
Some examples of nonviolent crimes in Oklahoma include domestic violence in the presence of a child; domestic violence against a pregnant woman; and domestic violence resulting in great bodily injury.
Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 3251 on May 19 this year, which classifies some domestic violence crimes as violent crimes.
With SQ 805, if a person repeatedly commits a nonviolent crime, their prior criminal convictions would not be analyzed to determine how much prison time they receive.
“Basically, what happens now is juries and judges can’t go back and look at a history to decide if there needs to be a more severe punishment,” said West. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
The sheriff also said if SQ 805 passes, nonviolent offenders, whose sentences were enhanced based on their prior convictions, would be released from prison early.
Steele, who is with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, an organization that advocates for more rehabilitation services in the state, said nonviolent felons will be held accountable, and will go to prison based on the Legislature’s standard, rather than the courts deciding how many years they will serve because of their prior history.
In Oklahoma, district attorneys may seek between twice the number of years from the first conviction to life in prison, depending on if an individual is charged with a crime 10 years after completing their sentence for a prior felony.
Steele said some people who steal, which is a nonviolent felony, serve life in prison. That’s the same sentence for those who have murdered, which is a violent crime.
He also said with offenders serving less time, taxpayers could save about $200 million, which could be used for mental health care.
“We understand there are individuals who need to be in prison … but we have to make sure we have the resources and space available to incarcerate those individuals and that’s never going to be the case as long as our prisons are full of people serving time for nonviolent offenses beyond the maximum range of punishment,” said Steele.