Cliff Notes: State Questions 780 and 781

by Dylan Erwin

     Greetings, and Happy Election Week from your friendly neighborhood criminal defense lawyer. As with most election years, the maelstrom that is the national election has taken center stage. No matter how tempting it is to focus on the “Cage Match for Pennsylvania Avenue”, we must never forget that, as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill allegedly and wisely put it, “all politics is local.” As Oklahomans, we have quite a few decisions to make as we enter the voting booth this week.

     [If you’ve already voted, great job! Sorry we couldn’t talk sooner. Between the World Series and Westbrook v. Durant (Part I), things have been a bit crazy. If you haven’t voted yet, have a seat, I’ll make some coffee…let’s chat.]

     There are seven State Questions that will be appearing on the ballot this election. These seven questions deal with everything from the death penalty and alcohol sales to a constitutional right to farm and the separation of church and state. Rather than quickly read over the text of the questions on your way into the voting booth (a crime I have been guilty of on more than one occasion), here’s a quick rundown of the two State Questions most closely related to criminal justice reform – SQ780 and SQ781.

State Question 780 

SQ780 seeks to do a number of things. Generally, SQ780 is turning all simple drug possessions into misdemeanors. This is already the case with marijuana – a first time possession of marijuana offense is only a misdemeanor in the state of Oklahoma. As the law currently stands, if you get caught in possession of any other controlled dangerous substance – like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine – you could face felony criminal charges. Even though simple possession would be a misdemeanor, under SQ780 it would still be a felony to manufacture, traffic, or sell a controlled dangerous substance (including marijuana). Those who support SQ780 see it as an opportunity to reduce the overcrowding in prisons, save the state money in the long term, and ultimately help addicts receive the treatment they need, rather than the incarceration they currently face. Those who oppose SQ780 say that it will decrease the leverage state prosecutors and judges have to encourage offenders to complete treatment programs, drug court, and mental health court. They also say that it will put more of a stress on county jails, since misdemeanors only carry up to one year of incarceration in the county jail. A “yes” vote means you want simple drug possessions to be re-classified as misdemeanors. A “no” vote means you want things to remain as they currently are written.

State Question 781 

SQ781 acts as a companion to SQ780. SQ781 cannot pass unless SQ780 is passed. SQ781 creates the County Community Safety Investment Fund (“CCSIF”). The CCSIF would be a revolving fund not subject to fiscal year limitations. The prison cost savings that would result from the changes implemented by SQ780 would be held in the CCSIF. Those funds, in turn, would be allocated to Oklahoma’s 77 counties (in proportion to each county’s population). Once that money is allocated, this funding mechanism would allow privately-run rehabilitative organizations that address mental and substance abuse problems to access the appropriated money and use it to fund health treatment, job training, and education programs. Those who support SQ781 see it as an opportunity to continue fighting the root of certain criminal behavior - substance abuse and drug dependence. They also say that treatment programs rather than incarceration reduce the likelihood of offenders re-offending. By reducing relapse, the state saves money by not having to continually prosecute the same offenders over and over. Those who oppose SQ781 say that, since the money held in CCSIF is subject to the same legislative appropriation as other state funds, there isn’t a guarantee that the money will actually go into the CCSIF. They also argue, as they argue in SQ780, that it is the fear of incarceration that compels drug offenders to participate in rehabilitative programs. Without the fear of prison, the incentive to rehabilitate is not as strong for those who truly don’t seek rehabilitation. A “yes” vote means you want the state to create the CCSIF, and all that comes with it. A “no” vote means you do not want the state to create the CCSIF. Remember, if SQ780 does not pass, SQ781 will not be implemented, even if it is passed.

See? Not that complicated, right? As someone who has spent the last five years trudging through the muck and mire of legalese and political language, it’s never a bad thing to get a straightforward explanation. That being said, I sure hope my explanation was straight-forward. Although this blog only covers two of the seven State Questions that you will see in the voting booth, I encourage you to talk with friends and family about these questions. Seek out further explanation. Heck, call me if you want. Know what your vote is doing. Your vote is your voice. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

I hope to see you all at the polls on Tuesday! If anything, you get a free sticker; and, hey, who doesn’t like stickers?

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