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House bill that would change voters’ criminal justice decision passes

Oklahoma flags blowing in the wind at Capitol

OKLAHOMA CITY – Less than three months after Oklahoma voters voiced their opinion on criminal justice reform, a bill that would revert some of those decisions has passed the Oklahoma House.

In November, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780 and State Question 781.

State Question 780 reclassifies some criminal offenses, like drug possession and property crimes, to misdemeanors instead of felonies. Supporters say treating drug addiction is much more effective than sending offenders to prison, and say it would save the state millions since half of all people incarcerated in Oklahoma are considered non-violent offenders.

“In states that have already implemented a variation of these reforms, they’ve actually experienced a reduction in crime and increase in public safety by addressing those core issues of addiction and mental illness,” Kris Steele, former Speaker of the House, told NewsChannel 4.

Some critics say they opposed the measure because a person could be convicted multiple times of a misdemeanor and it would never become a felony.

“I will have a conversation with a family with a guy who’s been six times in the county jail for meth, and then he kills somebody. And, I will have to tell them, if the law hadn’t changed, I might could have stopped this guy,” said Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn.

In November, voters ultimately approved the measure by nearly 60 percent. Now, a new measure has some questioning whether their decision will stay in place.

A bill in the Oklahoma House of Representatives titled the ‘Keep Oklahoma Children Safe from Illegal Drugs Act of 2017′ would add a provision to State Question 780.

It also adds that any person who is found with any drugs 1,000 feet from a school, park or in the presence of a child under 12-years-old would be guilty of a felony.

For the first offense, a person would spend less than five years in prison and must serve at least 50 percent of that sentence. A second offense would lead to less than 10 years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both. That defendant should serve at least 90 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release, according to House Bill 1482.

“After hearing from my constituents after the election, I believe there is a large group of voters that didn’t understand that this state question would essentially decriminalize drugs in schools, parks and playgrounds,” said Biggs, R-Chickasha. “I’m all for cleaning up our books to have a more efficient justice system but not at the expense of our children.”

On Thursday, the bill went before the Oklahoma House of Representatives and was at the center of a heated debate.

Democrats argued that voters knew what they were voting for, and didn’t want someone who was caught simply possessing a drug a few blocks away from a school being charged with a felony.

“Trust the over 800,000 voters who voted in favor of this legislation. We were elected to implement their will,” Rep. Emily Virgin said. “We should be thanking the voters for implementing this. Keep the intent of the voters intact.”

However, some Republicans say the bill fixes a loophole that voters were not aware of when they voted in favor of the state questions.

“93 percent of our teachers want drug-free school zones. But there’s a group in this House that wants to sell out our kids to save a dime,” said Rep. Scott Biggs, an author of the bill.

Ultimately, the bill passed through the Oklahoma House with a vote of 51-38. The bill now heads to the Oklahoma Senate.