Back to News & Commentary

Oklahomans Just Made History — and They Can Do it Again

A prison corridor
Oklahomans are ready to shed their title as one of the incarceration capitals of the world. This is the next step.
A prison corridor
Taylor Pendergrass,
Director of Advocacy,
ACLU of Colorado
Share This Page
November 13, 2019

Nov. 3, 2020 Update: State question 805 failed, meaning Oklahoma will continue to implement draconian sentencing laws that lead to the state being one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

Last week in Oklahoma, the largest single-day mass commutation of prison sentences in U.S. history took place. When all is said and done, nearly 600 people will be released from prison. This may seem like a surprise coming from a state that’s also home to the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the nation. But these commutations follow the will of the people: 58 percent of Oklahomans made clear at the ballot box in 2016 that they are ready to turn the tide on mass incarceration. The ballot initiative was supported by a number of legislators, and Governor Kevin Stitt proved to be a leader in providing retroactive relief during the commutation process.

Oklahomans now have another chance to make history. On November 12, a diverse, bipartisan coalition of local Oklahoma organizations filed a long-overdue ballot initiative that could have a serious impact on the state’s mass incarceration crisis. If it qualifies for the ballot and passes in November 2020, the ballot measure would give voters the opportunity to support a reform that dramatically reduces the use of so-called “sentencing enhancements.” These enhancements directly contribute to the state’s shameful title of one of the nation’s top incarcerators and enable prosecutors to call for excessive sentences for people serving time for nonviolent offenses. Not only do these long prison terms fail to improve public safety, but they also tear apart Oklahoma families and come at an incredible cost to taxpayers and the state.

Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, which not only makes it an extreme outlier but also serves as a drain on the public coffer. As Oklahoma’s incarcerated population has risen, so has the cost for Oklahoma taxpayers. In 2016, Oklahoma spent $376 million of its general fund on corrections — a 79 percent increase since 1987. General fund spending on corrections in Oklahoma has far outpaced growth in spending on other priorities. Every dollar used for incarceration is a dollar diverted away from investing in healthcare access and education. While Oklahoma spends nearly $16,000 on each person in prison, the state only spends $8,097 per student a year and recently ranked 46th in the nation in spending on mental health care. It’s time that we reassess our priorities.

Initiative petition 805 is a crucial next step Oklahomans can take toward dismantling the architecture of mass incarceration. This ambitious initiative directly tackles a 1990’s era tough-on-crime sentencing law that continues to wreak havoc on the lives of Oklahomans and has resulted in dangerous overcrowding in its prisons. If passed, initiative petition 805 will also significantly reduce the unchecked power of prosecutors to force people charged with crimes to accept harsh and excessive plea bargains that aren’t in the best interest of public safety and that have decimated communities of color throughout the state.

As they showed the world last week, Oklahomans are ready to shed their title as one of the incarceration capitals of the world for good. Initiative petition 805 is the next step forward.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page