• November 27, 2020

Okla. #1 in Global Incarcerations yet Voters Reject Reform

 Okla. #1 in Global Incarcerations yet Voters Reject Reform

Oklahoma State Penitentiary. By Kenny Breedlove, via CC

By Alex Myers 

TULSA, Oklahoma – Sonya Pyles, 45, sat in front of her computer as she started to read from a piece of paper, “Dear Governor Keating, I am not, as you have publicly stated, a career criminal…” 

Ahead of the election, Pyles was offended by the words of former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. That’s because in Oklahoma, you can be imprisoned up to five years for theft, which Pyles stood accused of. However, since Pyles had already been incarcerated for drug possession years ago, she faced up to 20 years behind bars.  

On Election Day voters were given a chance to upend what many call a form of double jeopardy—using a past conviction to greatly expand the punishment tied to a current charge—with State Question 805, which would have barred past non-violent convictions from impacting future sentencing.  

Even as criminal justice and prison reform efforts are gaining popularity nationwide, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure on Election Day. The state question was intended to address prison overpopulation, which has been a glaring problem for Oklahoma for years now. If the state were its own country, it would rank first for the number of incarcerated people per capita, according to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative study. The report revealed that 1,079 per 100,000 people are incarcerated in the state.

“I’m not quite sure what that will look like,

but I know that tomorrow we fight again”

Sonya Pyles

For weeks all across Oklahoma City, the state’s capital and most populated town, white yard signs displaying “Vote No on 805” were everywhere, from  businesses to houses.  

Oklahomans United Against 805, an organization against the state question, wrote on their website that, “SQ 805 is not responsible criminal justice reform. It would release dangerous abusers into communities across Oklahoma, where they will go home and continue the cycle of violence.” 

The main concern over the measure was that it would only apply to what the Oklahoma Constitution considers non-violent crimes. 

Oklahomans United Against 805 explained that crimes such as burglary and certain types of domestic abuse are classified as non-violent crimes under Oklahoma’s Constitution. People repeatedly charged with these types of crimes would have received leniency if the state question had passed. 

This concerned many Oklahomans. Tommie Johnson, who’s now slated to become Oklahoma County’s first Black sheriff after winning the race Tuesday, vocally opposed the measure. 

“I really think that we were heading in the right direction and we need to have the criminal justice reform talk, but how we get there matters as well,” Johnson told The News Station. 

He said that if the ballot measure had passed and if it was discovered later on that there was an increase in crime rates, then there would need to be another state question voted on by Oklahomans to fix that, which would take a long time. 

“When you look at the fact that there’s other crimes that are non-violent and this bill includes all non-violent crimes…I feel like [people committing crimes] would have reaped the benefit,” the sheriff-elect explained.   

By Wesley Fryer, via CC

Oklahoma is one of the most conservative states in the US. While the nation and globe await the results of a few battleground states, there was no question here: President Donald Trump easily won Oklahoma by over 65 percent. And his “law and order” message resonated here, even in the face of the bipartisan effort to relax sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders like Sonya Pyles. 

She came close to becoming another statistic after being incarcerated for drug possession and, later on, almost being incarcerated for theft. She was able to avoid 20 years for her theft charges by going to a recovery program for women, but that program is only offered in Tulsa County. 

That means thousands of women and men caught in a similar cycle of addiction, which is often accompanied by theft charges, won’t be given the same opportunity she got.

“I think [Oklahomans] are stuck in this tough-on-crime mindset that hasn’t been working for decades. I think maybe [Oklahoman’s] didn’t know enough about the truth, and they were just impacted by the fear mongering and lies,” Pyles says. 

She believes that most Oklahomans voted no on the measure because they did not have the time or educational resources to do proper research on the question. 

“It’s very frustrating. Thousands of people will continue to be affected by [Oklahoma’s] harsh sentencing laws,” Pyles says. “It’s heartbreaking to me.”

Pyles’s story and the numbers surrounding Oklahoma’s prison population made State Question 805 a bipartisan issue. 

Former Republican Speaker of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives Kris Steele, nearly every local Democratic lawmaker, groups like the ACLU, and even actress Scarlett Johansson all fought hard to pass the ballot measure. They had more than $8 million to bolster their argument for passing State Question 805. 

However, support from big names and strong financial backing didn’t matter in Oklahoma, as only 38.9 percent of voters were swayed.  

Despite the state question being soundly rejected, Oklahoma voters addressed prison overpopulation in the recent past. 

“It’s heartbreaking to me”

Sonya Pyles

In 2016, two state questions, 780 and 781, decriminalized possession of substances like cannabis and created a fund for mental health and substance abuse treatment. The idea was that funds not spent on incarcerating those charged with drug possession would add up and the money would be used to create a strong, state-sponsored rehabilitation program. 

The legislature has refused to direct any of the estimated savings to the program, and, arguably, it shows how much of an uphill battle prison reform can be in conservative bastions like Oklahoma. 

This was at the top of Pyles’ mind as she recorded herself reading the letter she wrote to former Gov. Keating in response to him saying that Oklahomans should vote no on the ballot measure.

“…I am your fellow Oklahoman and I refuse to be defined by my past. My battle with addiction began as a result of years of trauma,” Pyles read. “Today, I am successful beyond what I could have thought possible all those years ago because I was given another chance and the opportunity to participate in a [recovery program].” 

Still, Pyles and others are vowing not to give up. 

“We, as a powerful bipartisan movement, will continue to fight for common sense reform from this day forward,” Pyles says. “I’m not quite sure what that will look like, but I know that tomorrow we fight again.” 

Alex Myers

Alex Myers

Alex is a freelance politics writer based in Oklahoma City. He has worked in YouTube news as an associate producer covering U.S. and international news. You can find him on Twitter @_alex_myers_

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