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Signature gathering for petition seeking to end certain sentence enhancements to begin

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A sentencing reform group can begin collecting signatures Thursday for a constitutional ballot initiative that would prohibit the use of prior felony convictions to enhance sentences in nonviolent cases.

It also would allow people who are in prison for felony sentences that were enhanced based on one or more former felony convictions and whose sentences are greater than the current maximum sentence that can be imposed on a person convicted of the same felony with no former felony convictions to seek a sentence modification in court.

The change would not apply to people who have been convicted of a violent felony.

A violent felony is defined as any felony offense that's listed in Section 571 of Title 57 of state statutes as of Jan. 1, 2020. That section of state law lists 52 crimes that are classified as violent. Domestic violence crimes are not included on the list.

The initiative petition was filed by Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform, a coalition that includes business and faith leaders, elected officials and people impacted by the criminal justice system.

If supporters collect nearly 178,000 valid signatures within a 90-day window that ends at 5 p.m. on March 26, the measure will be put to a statewide vote in 2020. It would appear on the ballot as State Question 805. The ballot initiative would ask voters to add a new article to the Oklahoma constitution.

Supporters of the initiative argue that Oklahoma has an incarceration crisis that's driven in large part by the use of extreme prison sentences.

"People accused of crime in Oklahoma can have years, decades or even life in prison stacked on top of their sentence if they've ever been convicted of a crime in the past," said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. "These sentence enhancements can be applied at the complete discretion of prosecutors."

In Oklahoma, people spend nearly 70% longer in prison for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes than the national average, Steele said, referencing a report by FWD.us, a bipartisan political organization. He said those long sentences weaken families, communities and the workforce and waste tax dollars.

Mass incarceration in Oklahoma is tearing families apart, he said, and long prison sentences do not make communities safer.

But district attorneys and domestic violence victim advocates have raised concerns about the initiative petition.

"I think it's dangerous for the state of Oklahoma to say we're not going to enhance sentences anymore on nonviolent offenders," said Jason Hicks, district attorney for Caddo, Grady, Jefferson and Stephens counties. "I think we're compromising public safety if this state question goes into effect."

Hicks, who is chairman of the District Attorneys Council, said a person's punishment should be more severe if that person has committed more offenses.

"If you're on what would amount to your 10th felony offense, you shouldn't be treated the same way as the person who committed this the very first time," Hicks said. "So for me, it's a matter of just fundamental fairness between your long-term, repeat offender and your first offender."

Angela Marsee, district attorney for five western Oklahoma counties, said crimes such as domestic abuse by strangulation, domestic abuse with great bodily injury, aggravated assault and battery, cruelty to animals and soliciting sex from a minor are not on the list of violent crimes, so prosecutors would no longer be able to use prior felony convictions to enhance those punishments.

"If you take away our ability to enhance or increase punishment when someone has continued to re-offend, you have negative impacts on public safety," said Marsee, who is vice chair of the District Attorneys Council.

Steele said people convicted of domestic violence crimes would still go to prison under the proposed reforms, but it would be according to a standard sentence range and "not based on arbitrary decisions of prosecutors."

"Ultimately, we're not saying that people convicted of offenses wouldn't go to prison because they still could go to prison," Steele said. "In fact, they could go to prison for the maximum range of punishment for that particular offense. But they're not going to have these arbitrary, lengthy years added on for no apparent benefit."

Reducing the state's prison population would free up additional resources that could be invested in developing accountability measures and effective programming, Steele said. Addressing the core issues that might be causing the behavior while providing proper accountability is important, he added.

"We are either going to spend our money on mass incarceration or effective programming and safe, proper, effective accountability structures," Steele said. "We don't have enough to do both and so by reducing our incarceration rate, that frees up the resources."

Related Photos
<strong>Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, center, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks after a group working to reduce Oklahoma's prison population launched an initiative petition that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Oklahoma City. [AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki]</strong>

Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, center, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks after a group working to reduce Oklahoma's prison population launched an initiative petition that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates, Tuesday, Nov. 12,...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-bc235a3cd6a83c800e61f5538a2ea9b5.jpg" alt="Photo - Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, center, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks after a group working to reduce Oklahoma's prison population launched an initiative petition that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Oklahoma City. [AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki] " title=" Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, center, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks after a group working to reduce Oklahoma's prison population launched an initiative petition that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Oklahoma City. [AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki] "><figcaption> Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, center, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks after a group working to reduce Oklahoma's prison population launched an initiative petition that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Oklahoma City. [AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki] </figcaption></figure>
Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut, North Carolina and Oklahoma, including a previous... Read more ›

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