The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Election Yields Major Turning Point for Criminal Justice Reform as Voters Approve Two Ballot Initiatives in Oklahoma to Overhaul Broken System

With Second Highest Incarceration Rate in the Country, Oklahoma Now on a Path to Reduce Incarceration Rate, Signaling Shift in National Reform Strategy to Focus on States as Ground Zero for Justice Reforms


Today, Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, released the below statement following the approval of two Oklahoma ballot initiatives representing the most ambitious effort to overhaul the state's criminal justice system. With the second highest incarceration rate in the nation, Oklahoma has long struggled with getting reform efforts off the ground. The successful campaign, led by a bipartisan coalition of on-the-ground allies -- including the ACLU of Oklahoma -- in the state, successfully secured two state questions on the ballot that will reduce the prison population, redirect savings toward addressing the root causes of crime, and provide rehabilitation and treatment services to return people to productive lives in their communities.

"Last night's approval of State Questions 780 and 781 by the voters of Oklahoma not only represents a major step forward in reducing the state's prison population, but represents a game-changing moment for criminal justice reform nationwide," Romero said. "At a time when advocates for reform have seen federal efforts stalled by the partisan gridlock created by the election cycle, a bright spot emerged in Oklahoma -- the reddest of the red states -- where voters spoke in unison: it is time to reform our broken justice system. This effort signals a shift in strategy for reform advocates everywhere, who are turning their focus from Capitol Hill toward the states as ground zero for the fight to overhaul and transform our justice system. Last night's victory inspires a new strategy anchored by coalition building at the local level, and will be remembered as a turning point in the ongoing fight to reform our justice system."

The successful "Yes on 780 and 781" campaign, which launched in January, generated tremendous support from Oklahomans across the state, including some of the state's most prominent and respected law enforcement officials, faith leaders, business leaders, healthcare and medical professionals, and elected officials.

From March to June, the campaign collected more than 220,000 signatures from Oklahomans across the state to qualify State Questions 780 and 781 for the November ballot -- far exceeding the 65,000 signatures per question required. In the months following, the campaign crisscrossed the state hosting a series of town halls, community conversations, and other events bringing the conversation directly to the people of Oklahoma.

Polling throughout the campaign revealed the conversation was having an impact, and Oklahomans were responding.

The Need for Reform

Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest incarceration rate for women, which costs taxpayers more than $500 million annually and drains significant resources away from investments that can do more to provide necessary rehabilitation and training programs, and ultimately enhance public safety. As the state's prison population continues growing -- increasing by 12 percent between 2009 and 2014 -- so does its price tag, which has increased by 172 percent in the past two decades.

State Questions 780 and 781

Through two ballot measures -- Questions 780 and 781 -- the coalition worked to pursue sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses, which trigger cost savings to be invested in evidence-based programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions and provide access to education and job training, which are more effective approaches to reducing crime and keeping communities safe. The savings will be redirected back to the counties so that local communities can determine how best to tailor rehabilitative services to the specific needs of their communities.

Question 780 will reclassify certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. By reclassifying these offenses, Oklahoma is able to trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending. Question 781 will then invest those cost savings into addressing the root causes of crime through rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior and go untreated in prison, and education and job training programs to help people find employment, and avoid going back to prison.

Removing the felony conviction for individuals battling addiction and mental illness and redirecting costs savings back to counties for treatment services represent logical next steps toward building on and strengthening the reforms signed into law.

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 and is our nation's guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

(212) 549-2666