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Poll: 69 percent of Oklahomans support criminal justice reform

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor

Four years after Oklahoma voters passed landmark criminal justice reform measures, a recent poll revealed support remains strong across the political spectrum.

69 percent of Oklahomans say they generally support criminal justice reform, while 76 percent specifically support a 2016 reform measure, according to a February poll from WPA Intelligence. Another 66 percent believe it is important to reduce the number of people in prisons or jail.

“Oklahomans’ support for criminal justice reform is clear and consistent across party lines,” said Chris Wilson, president of WPA Intelligence. “The data show a majority of Oklahomans support reforms that would safely reduce the jail and prison population, save taxpayer dollars, and provide people who have committed nonviolent offenses with the resources and treatment they need to safely reenter their communities.”

Bipartisan support for criminal justice reform measures

The pollsters noted Oklahoma’s top ten status in having one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. And the state has for decades held a record for incarcerating women. FWD.us is a bipartisan political advocacy organization that commissioned the poll. They work on criminal justice and immigration reform in multiple states, including Oklahoma.

“Sixty-five percent of respondents are more likely to vote for candidates who support criminal justice reform, and this support is consistent across party lines,” said Wilson of WPA Intelligence. “Candidates put their electoral futures at risk if they do not support criminal justice reform.”

More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Oklahomans still support State Question 780, after it passed with only 58 percent  in 2016. The bill reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Along with other reforms, the law helped reduce Oklahoma’s prison population. It’s dropped dramatically from over 27,000 in 2018 to less than 22,000 today.

It’s also operating at 85 percent capacity, a drastic reduction from recent years. Kris Steele, a former Republican Speaker of the Oklahoma House, founded Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, which has been influential in getting reform measures passed and signed by the Governor.

Majority of Republicans support criminal justice reform, despite conservative lawmakers

Although, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate per capita remains one of the highest in the nation and higher than many countries. While advocates and some lawmakers work to continue those reforms, others seek to eliminate them altogether.

Last year, Sen. Casey Murdock authored Senate Bill 1674, which would reverse parts of SQ 780. It would have returned drug distribution within 1,000 feet of a school from a misdemeanor to a felony. This year, advocates worry that conservative lawmakers seem more concerned with passing unconstitutional anti-protesting bills rather than reducing Oklahoma’s mass incarceration crisis.

Notably, criminal justice reform has broad support regardless of political party, according to the poll from WPA Intelligence. It finds that 63 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of Independents, and 76 percent of Democrats support criminal justice reform. Moreover, 58 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Independents, and 80 percent of Democrats responding to the survey said reducing Oklahoma’s prison population is important.

Coalition of liberal and conservative groups support reforms

“This polling further proves what we already know — that Oklahomans want smart justice reform that prioritizes treatment over longer prison sentences,” said Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank.

“Oklahomans want action on criminal justice reform, and expect elected leaders to make it a priority. Voters continue to strongly support SQ 780 and lawmakers should not pass legislation that would undo that impactful reform. Voters know we must address our state’s incarceration crisis and overwhelmingly support prioritizing reentry services or treatment to help people safely return to their communities and be productive citizens.”

Small and the OCPA recently joined onto a press release from reform advocates responding to a decision by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.

 

Hunter created the Attorney General’s Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council three years ago to reclassify felony offenses in Oklahoma. The Council’s legislative requirement is to reduce or hold neutral the state’s prison population. In 2019 the council made a recommendation that advocates say would likely increase the prison.

“Today, the Council has publicly released another proposal. As we analyze the prison population and fiscal impact of these recommendations, it is important to acknowledge that Oklahomans want common sense reform that will safely decrease our prison population,” a coalition of justice reform advocates said in a statement.

Members of the coalition include: Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, Americans for Prosperity, Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Right on Crime, ACLU of Oklahoma, and Open Justice Oklahoma dollars. 

Evidence-based solutions

“We urge the Council to propose evidence-based recommendations that address these issues and create meaningful criminal justice reform,” the joint statement continued.

Advocates continue to push lawmakers to align with the will of the voters. Meanwhile, the recent poll shows that the tough on crime approach may finally be fizzling in Oklahoma.

WPA Intelligence, an Oklahoma-based firm with polling experience in political races across the nation, conducted the poll between February 22-25, 2021.

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