During the run-up to the November 8th election, we have noted the choice before the citizens of Oklahoma whether to approve two State Questions (780 and 781) that, if passed, would work to reduce prison overcrowding in this state by reclassifying certain felony-level drug and property crimes to misdemeanors while redirecting into drug treatment programs any money that may be saved from that reduction.

Voters have now approved both of these proposals; what do they mean for you?

Your risk of being sent to state prison for some crimes has been lessened.

When it comes to “simple” drug possession (possession of illegal drugs without aggravating circumstances such as intent to distribute), Oklahoma law has until last Tuesday followed the “Get Tough” philosophy of harsher penalties. Specifically, that the prospect of felony-level prison time upon conviction would deter some potential offenders while keeping those convicted of drug possession off the streets.

Whether this approach really works as intended has been questionable. While the number of people in this state serving felony prison sentences has indeed been high – Oklahoma lays claim to the dubious distinction of having one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, with its state prisons being filled beyond capacity – studies on the effect of longer prison sentences on reducing recidivism rates have been inconclusive.

What is more, coping with the state penitentiary overflow by keeping some state prisoners in county jails has proven to be a costly work-around, leaving less money available to devote to programs that to help those released from prison avoid becoming entangled in the criminal justice system again upon release. The added social cost that follows when people with felony convictions in their pasts have difficulty finding employment is hard to quantify, but is nonetheless real.

Under the new law, simple drug possession is now a misdemeanor. This means that you will no longer be subject to the felony-level punishment under the old law. These new changes have no bearing on manufacturing, trafficking or possession with intent to distribute. These crimes remain felonies and can carry lengthy prison terms.

This legal reform also extends to certain crimes against property where the value of the property is less than $1,000. Property crimes covered by this change include; false declaration of a pawn ticket, embezzlement, larceny, grand larceny, theft, receiving or concealing stolen property, taking domesticated fish or game, fraud, forgery, counterfeiting, or issuing bogus checks. This measure would become effective July 1, 2017.  Instead of being a felony offense, such crimes are now misdemeanors carrying up to one year in confinement in a county jail instead of multiple years in a state prison.

Focus on treatment

Having fewer people spending long amounts of time in lock-up should cost the state less money. The new legal approach is to divert this saved money into rehabilitative treatment programs, including mental health treatment, the specific intent of which is to anticipate and deal with some of the problems faced by those who have completed time spent in jail and who must now reintegrate themselves into society. The measure requires the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to use either actual data or its best estimate to determine how much money was saved on a yearly basis. The amount determined to be saved must be deposited into the Fund and distributed to counties in proportion to their population to provide community rehabilitative programs, such as mental health and substance abuse services.

Having legal assistance is still a must

These new laws do not decriminalize drug possession or property crimes; they only increase the threshold point where such behaviors become felonies. If you are accused of simple drug possession or a misdemeanor property crime, you can still be subject to months of confinement, substantial fines, or both. And although not having a felony on your record is an improvement over the old law, a misdemeanor conviction can still haunt you when you are seeking employment.

With the experienced criminal defense lawyers at the Hunsucker Legal Group on your side to prepare the best possible defense for pre-trial negotiation or trial defense can make the difference between acquittal or staying clear of avoidable legal consequences if acquittal is not possible.