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House passes bill changing voter-approved criminal justice reform

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Members and supporters of IMPACT discuss their concerns about a bill affecting SQ 780 and 781 during a meeting Wednesday at the Capitol.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Despite fierce opposition and public outcry, a House bill that will reinstate felony laws for drug possession near schools passed the Oklahoma House Thursday by a vote of 51-38.

HB 1428 now heads to the Senate. The bill, which originally called for felony charges for those found with drugs near parks, schools, churches, fairgrounds and other public places, was amended to only include school zones.

Oklahoma Representatives Mike Sanders, Scott Biggs, Leslie Osborn and Tim Downing - all Republicans - introduced HB 1482, which also originally required people charged with a second or subsequent felony possession to serve at least 90 percent of their sentence before earning credit for early release.

The bill changes what Oklahomans approved in November, which reduced most drug possession to misdemeanor charges. However, the bill’s authors felt the voters were not aware that drug possession within 1,000 feet of a school would be downgraded as well.

State Questions 780 and 781 were approved by 60 percent by voters in November. Supporters of State Question 780 said passage would reduce the prison populations and reduce costs to taxpayers by treating drug offenders through rehabilitation and mental health services instead of placing them in jail.

The law changed certain non-violent drug- and theft-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, which come with a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $1,000.

State Question 781 redistributes the money saved by the reduced prison costs to counties to fund rehabilitation of criminals.

“This law exists for children and children only. It’s wrong to say this is what the people of Oklahoma chose when we didn’t allow them to vote on it,” said state Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell, during debate.

Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, another author on the original bill, accused opponents of selling out children in the state to save “a dime or two.”

Biggs suggested opponents of the bill were selling out children.

State Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha). (Oklahoma House of Representatives)

Rep. Emily Virgin, who opposed the bill, argued that voters knew what they were voting for, and that they realized the state’s prisons were overcrowded.

“They recognized that families are being torn apart and kids are going into the foster system because of our draconian drug laws in Oklahoma,” said Virgin, D-Norman.

State Rep. Emily Virgin (D-Norman) (Olivier Rey / Red Dirt Report)

“I want to make it perfectly clear: House Bill 1482 is an outrageous slap in the face to the voters of Oklahoma,” said former Speaker Kris Steele, a vocal supporter of criminal justice reform, during a rally earlier this month. “The officials have said we don’t understand. I think it may be them who don’t understand.”


On Wednesday, members IMPACT Coalition of Oklahoma - a coalition of minority mental health and substance abuse services - as well as the NAACP also pushed for lawmakers to keep state question 780 and 781 written as is.

The group met at the Capitol along with members of the public to address their concerns about changes to the approved laws and to fight against prison over-incarceration.

They also called for members of IMPACT organizations to be included on the Governor’s Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform, which they say excludes those who actually deal with criminal justice issues.

“It appears that those who wanted this bill believe we are not capable of understanding what we were voting on. We Oklahomans are much smarter than that.” said IMPACT President, Dr. W. L. Haskins of COPE, Inc.

Members of the community also spoke out against altering the state law.

“We need to come together and speak with numbers,” said Darla Shelden of Oklahoma Amnesty International. “We need to follow this nonsense they are trying to pass and speak out consistently against these types of bills.”

Others questioned why legislators were even trying to change what voters approved.

“What’s the point of voting if they are just going to change it?” asked Rugena Mothershet Blonner. “This is why young people don’t vote. They vote for something, and they don’t give it to us. It makes no sense. You say you represent us? Well, do your job.”

Letters from the IMPACT Coalition member agencies were delivered to the Governor’s office on March 2, detailing support for the state questions 780 and 781. Additionally the letters also requested and recommended that Gov. Mary Fallin appoint a member of IMPACT to the task force.

“We want the governor to appoint someone from IMPACT, which is a group of minority providers who have come together to advocate for better health of individuals in the community,” said Haskins. “We are collectively concerned about civil and human rights and are willing to push for a voice concerning the mass incarceration of Oklahomans.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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