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Unruly crowd shouts state senator down, prompts him to stop bill

M. Tim Blake / Red Dirt Report
Chad Smith protesting at the forum Monday night.
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Bethany woman calms audience when asking about repeat offenders who kill innocent people

OKLAHOMA CITY – A hostile, unruly crowd at Oklahoma City Community College greeted state Sen. Ralph Shortey with catcalls and chants of “kill the bill” in connection with a controversial measure that would change two state questions approved by voters in November.

The state questions centered on criminal justice reform, an issue that caught the attention of voters who want fewer people in prison for drug possession crimes and more rehabilitation centers for addicts.

People attending Shortey’s town hall meeting had little patience Monday night as the legislator tried to explain his concerns about the state questions and the impact the measures will have on the public. Shortey tried to explain that possession of 329 Schedule I drugs will now be a misdemeanor instead of a felony, including the date rape drug Rohypnol.

“Where I draw the line [on possession] is where it impacts someone else,” he said.

Shortey also said he’s worried about “proximity crimes” that allow people to carry any drug they want on school campuses, in parks and around children under 12 years old.

“This was brought up by the district attorneys,” he said. “This is a misdemeanor now and always will be and I’ve got an issue with that.”

State Question 780 changed possession of any drug on school campuses from a felony to a misdemeanor, state law enforcement officials have said.

However, the citizens at Monday’s town hall did not agree with Shortey’s comments or his bill to change the state questions.

As Shortey continued to explain his concerns, one citizen yelled, “It’s been 37 minutes. When are you going to start taking questions?”

The citizens argued with Shortey that his Senate bill repeals the state questions and makes all drug possession charges a felony again, instead of a misdemeanor as provided in SQ 780.

Another citizen hollered, “Withdraw your bill until you can figure it out.”

At times, the entire crowd chanted, “do your job” and “kill the bill.”

Shortey said voters didn’t understand the consequences of voting for SQ 780 and SQ 781 because the ballot title, or gist, was only 200 words. Shortey told the crowd Monday that the state questions did not list some of the changes or their effect, which prompted some citizens to comment that the senator did not believe they were intelligent enough to understand the state questions.

Shortey’s bill, which he later said he would not try to pass during this legislative session, would technically reverse all of the changes voters adopted in November. However, Shortey conceded that he is only concerned about proximity crimes and possession crimes that impact other people.

Still, the crowd was having no part of his explanations.

At one point, Bethany resident Lori Pool quieted the crowd when she asked what would happen to offenders who continually seek rehabilitation but repeat the same crimes such as driving while intoxicated or driving while impaired. Pool, whose brother was killed by a drunk driver in 1970, acknowledged she didn’t support the two state questions.

“Even though rehab is necessary for both mentally ill and those addicted to drugs, this gives people an open ended opportunity to get clean without jail time, basically offering them time to do drugs without consequences,” she said. “I understand the first and second time. Everyone has a right to get rehab without jail, but year after year it will always be a misdemeanor for simple possession. What happens when someone does it 10 times and they go to rehab? Then, on the eleventh time, they get behind the wheel of a car and kill someone? What have we done?”

Pool mentioned the drunk driving death of Yukon woman Mandy Starkey-Carson who was killed by a man with multiple DUI convictions, and the case of a 7-year-old child killed by another drunk driver.

“These [state questions] allow someone to go to their rehab for 45 or 90 days and then get out and go about their old ways,” she said.

Pool said her brother was killed by a drunk driver who had been at the State Fair drinking beer and later rammed his pickup into the brother’s Volkswagen.

“He [brother] had no chance,” she said.

Andrew Speno, state director for Right on Crime, said he admires Shortey for his willingness to host the town hall despite the large number of people who oppose his legislative measure.

“He listened to what they had to say and he publicly announced the bill is a mistake,” Speno said. “I think he’s a good man, an honest man. He deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to have the town hall meeting and meet the voters head on. It takes a big man to admit his mistakes.”

Kris Steele, a former Speaker of the House and a leader to approve the two state questions, said he would encourage any public official to uphold the will of the people.

“The current Department of Corrections model is broken. We are failing to address the root causes of anti-social behavior,” he said, in reference to lack of rehab programs across the state. We need to give Oklahoma a chance to introduce a new paradigm.”

Steele also believes Shortey is wrong about his assessment that Oklahoma Emergency Management Services is ill-equipped to handle the financial end of the two state questions. SQ 781 provided that the cost savings from fewer state prisoners would be used to pay for rehab services in the 77 counties.

“I think they [OEMS] can handle the calculations,” he said.

However, another bill endorsed by Steele would allow the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to handle the money and make sure it is directed toward credentialed rehab services throughout the state.

Steele acknowledged some reforms to the state questions, such as the financial management of the cost savings, are needed.

At times throughout the meeting, some citizens stood up and acknowledged they use drugs on a recreational basis and said they don’t believe such drug use should be prosecuted. One woman proudly told the crowd she purchased marijuana in another state and transported it across state lines into Oklahoma. Three police officers were sitting in the back of the room during her confession.

Photos by Red Dirt Report's M. Tim Blake.

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Tim Farley

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