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Oklahoma House committee advances bill to make State Question 780 retroactive


A bill that would affect the criminal sentences of hundreds of people convicted of nonviolent offenses in Oklahoma easily cleared a House committee Tuesday and headed to the full House.

House Bill 1269 would apply sentencing reform changes laid out in State Question 780 to offenders who were convicted before the law took effect. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill 14-3.

Passed by Oklahoma voters in 2016, the state question reclassified certain low-level drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies. It took effect July 1, 2017, but didn't apply retroactively.

House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said Tuesday that the bill reflects what voters intended when they approved the state question.

"The citizens of the state of Oklahoma voted and decided these crimes should be misdemeanor crimes," Echols said.

Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, argued that an inmate who had a prior conviction on a violent offense shouldn't get the benefit of the bill.

Echols disagreed, saying punitive attitudes toward the state's justice system have hampered criminal justice reform efforts in the past.

However, Echols said he and the bill's co-author, Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, were working with district attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates on a number of issues related to the bill, including what to do about repeat offenders and how to deal with those inmates who made plea deals to avoid charges for violent crime.

The bill is one of several pieces of legislation backed by the nonpartisan coalition Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. Kris Steele, executive director of the organization, said the bill is an important piece of the group's reform efforts. The bill would apply the will of Oklahoma voters equally to all nonviolent offenders, including those convicted before the new law took effect, Steele said.

Although enacting criminal justice reform in Oklahoma has been "tough sledding" over the years, Steele, the former Republican House speaker, said the issue has gained more bipartisan support in recent years as conservatives have begun to see it as a fiscally responsible option.

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›