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Oklahoma Voters Reject Measure That Would Have Spared Non-Violent Repeat Offenders from Harsher Punishments

The United States presidential election remains up in the air, but there’s no question about a ballot measure in Oklahoma that would have changed the lives of some constituents. With 100-percent of precincts reporting in, Oklahomans voted “no” at about 61-percent on state question 805. It would have prevented harsher punishments for people who were previously convicted of felonies considered non-violent under the law.

“It would prohibit the use of a former felony conviction to increase the statutorily allowable base range of punishment for a person subsequently convicted of a felony,” read the text. “Individuals who are currently incarcerated for felony sentences that were enhanced based on one or more former felony convictions, and whose sentences are greater than the maximum sentence that may currently be imposed for such felonies, may seek sentence modification in court.”

But the final results indicated the majority of voters opposed this amendment to the state constitution. Proponents argued that Oklahoma law was way too harsh, and that authorities were all too ready to send criminal defendants to prison. Instead of protecting communities and addressing underlying social problems, Oklahoma is leading rates of incarceration in the country, proponents said.

Former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives Kris Steele (a Republican) told Politico in an April profile that “we’re awfully quick to look at incarceration as a solution. It tears families apart, it creates instability. It makes the situation much worse.”

Opponents argued that the definition of violent felonies omitted such crimes as domestic abuse or thefts.

“There are just a ton of crimes out there that I think most people would classify as violent crimes (that aren’t under current law),” Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler told Tulsa World. “We need to focus on a definition of violent.”

Kunzweiler told KJRH-TV that the state needed “leverage” against offenders who kept breaking the law.

Local attorney and 805 proponent Ryan Haynie argued that there was a good reason why certain offenses were not considered violent.

“As any prosecutor or defense attorney can attest, there are few run-of-the-mill domestic abuse cases,” he wrote in an August defense of the measure. “Some are vicious assaults by men against women and children. Others are verbal, but still result in criminal charges. Some involve children against parents, wives against husbands, and even siblings or roommates against each other.”

“Classifying a crime as violent can result in much longer sentences, which in some cases makes it much harder to bring charges, get witnesses to testify, and ultimately achieve a conviction. In other words, the Legislature has had its reasons to not classify all domestic abuse as a violent offense,” Haynie added.

[Image via KJRH-TV/screengrab]

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