OK lawmakers are reversing key justice reforms passed by voters

What do Oklahoma voters want?

By G.W. Schulz

State lawmakers in Oklahoma City seeking to curtail the wishes expressed by voters in a ballot measure seven years ago have succeeded with the passage of a new law. State Question 780 first passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2016. The measure came in response to the state’s prison system exploding in size partly as a result of America’s long-running war on drugs. Oklahoma regularly ranked among the top states for the number of people incarcerated. Voters decided the costs to communities and taxpayers of a bloated criminal justice system had grown too high.

Kris Steele, a former Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said then about the measure: 

“One in three people in Oklahoma’s prisons need mental health treatment, and one quarter of inmates are serving time for a nonviolent drug offense. It is time to take a smarter approach to public safety by increasing access to programs that address the root causes of crime.”

Believing it was time for meaningful reform, voters passed SQ 780, which reclassified certain drug and property crimes from severe felonies to milder misdemeanors. But according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, certain lawmakers have wanted to legislate over the wishes of voters since then. House Bill 2153 was passed in May and sponsored by Rep. Ross Ford (R-Broken Arrow) and Sen. Michael Bergstrom (R-Adair). 

It unwinds SQ 780 by reclassifying multiple drug possessions back to a felony from a less-serious misdemeanor, and it sends defendants away to prison for possibly years. On the third possession charge, the individual faces a minimum of 30 days in jail. According to the policy institute:

“This runs contrary to a key provision of SQ 780 – the most significant criminal justice reform in the last decade. As a result, our friends and neighbors who need access to treatment will instead help fill Oklahoma’s prisons, which is the opposite of what voters indicated when they passed SQ 780.”


On the other hand, it’s worth noting that HB 2153 does contain opportunities for relief. The bill’s authors created an avenue for clearing the felony. The defendant must complete a diversion program of up to three years and a substance-abuse evaluation. The law additionally would not apply to cannabis, which is now legal in Oklahoma with a medical card following another statewide measure passed by voters.

The liberal-leaning Oklahoma Policy Institute says the state should press ahead with further reforms either way that could help reduce Oklahoma’s still-high prison and jail populations. They say lawmakers can start with the state’s broken system of parole. Officials can also look at excessive sentences that don’t correspond to a meaningful boost in public safety. Lawmakers already failed to pass legislation in 2023 that would have led to fairer sentences for non-violent felonies in a state with historically excessive sentences. 

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative counterpart to the policy institute, also questioned the wisdom of defying voters on criminal justice reform. They called for Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt to veto HB 2153. The council argued that Oklahoma voters had taken a stand on “tough-on-crime” policies and wanted laws that were smarter on criminal justice:

“It would seem Oklahomans were tired of seeing so many of their fellow citizens incarcerated and tagged with a felony record for nothing more than possessing an illegal substance. … Of course, we don’t think illicit drugs are good. Far from it. But the question is whether the threat of incarceration and – perhaps more problematic – a felony conviction are the best way to help people.”