Group hoping to reclassify low-level offenses in Oklahoma launches signature drive

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OKLAHOMA CITY - A group of Oklahomans kicked off a signature drive on Thursday morning in an attempt to get two state questions to a vote of the people in November.

Supporters of the measures said they will not only reduce the prison population but will also help low-level offenders turn their lives around for the better.

They said, if prisoners who need mental health and substance abuse treatment don't get the help they need, they just end up back in prison.

 “Our correction system is broken - that all we are doing is throwing money away by warehousing and not getting these people the help that they need,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry.

Henry is just one of several community leaders getting behind this effort.

State Question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses like drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 from felonies to misdemeanors.

In turn, supporters said the bill would reduce the prison population and save money.

State Question 781 would direct the cost savings from 780 back to the counties for rehabilitation programs like drug and mental health treatment and job training.

“For far too long, we have put people in cages, warehoused them as Gov. Henry said, instead of providing them with mental health care. We have destroyed lives by saddling people with felony convictions," said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

Tom Ward, CEO of Tapstone Energy, spoke about how his company has tried to hire employees from the state’s correctional centers but found it difficult.

“The worst thing that could happen is to have the scarlet letter of 'F' for felon put on them. You can’t overcome it,” Ward said.

Meagan Gaddis also spoke at the rally for Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform and said she is living proof rehabilitation can work.

“I had possession of methamphetamine as one of them, and it was my personal use, it wasn’t anything more than that. And, I’m a convicted felon because of that,” Gaddis said.

But, she avoided prison by going through a rehab program and now works for that very same program.

“I got treatment, but we don’t have that widely available to people. And, that’s what these petitions are trying to do,” Gaddis said.

The group needs more than 65,000 signatures per petition by June to get those questions on the ballot in November.

For more information on the group, visit the Oklahomans For Justice Reform website.