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Law Enforcement, Advocates Differ On How To Fix Oklahoma's 'Felon Factory'

Kate Carlton Greer / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
Carla Quillen

Oklahoma’s prisons are crowded, and the state continues to incarcerate offenders at the second- highest rate in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Two state questions on the November 8 ballot aim to ease both of those strains.  

Carla Quillen started using drugs when she was 17. Before she knew it, she was addicted and selling crack cocaine to support her habit. She compiled a lengthy rap sheet with multiple drug charges, but Quillen mostly stayed out of prison. Then, fourteen years ago, she gave birth in her house to her son Justice. She was high at the time. Shortly after Justice was born, he died. Quillen was charged with murder.

“It was horrible,” Quillen said. "That's the last thing I wanted to happen, and to think that people were saying that I literally, intentionally wanted my son to die, it just made me want to continue to get high to ease the pain because that's not who I am.”

The charge was eventually downgraded to child neglect, and Quillen went to prison for about a decade. She got out last year and landed a job. She’s been sober for 13 years, but she can’t believe addiction ruled her life for so many years.

“Ugh, it took that much for me to wake up? It actually took that?” Quillen said.

A financial and social responsibility

Quillen thinks if the state had sent her to treatment instead of just deferring her first sentence, she could’ve quit drugs years before. That’s what these two state questions — 780 and 781 — aim to do.

“These reforms are ultimately about making the best use of our state's resources both from a financial standpoint and from a human capital standpoint,” said Kris Steele, the head of Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform. The grassroots group developed the two measures voters will see on the ballot next month.

State Question 780 would elevate the monetary threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1000. A vote yes also means several low-level drug and property crimes will be reclassified as misdemeanors instead of felonies. That means offenders won’t serve prison time. Steele expects the state to see significant savings by lessening incarceration rates. The second measure — 781 — redirects those savings to counties to expand drug and mental health treatment programs.

“What we're doing right now is not working. And so we've got to try a new approach and we believe that the answer based on the success in other states is to address the root cause of the crime through appropriate levels of treatment and mental health care,” Steele said.

Business leaders like Clay Bennett and Gene Rainbolt have backed the state questions, contributing financially to the campaign. Rainbolt argues there's an opportunity gap between Oklahoma's potential and the way the state deals with the mentally ill and drug-addicted. 

"We are running a felon factory in Oklahoma that, in generations to come, will exacerbate the problem we already have," Rainbolt said.

The changes are statutory, not constitutional, meaning the legislature could amend the laws as needed. Steele says that's by design.

“We're going to have to continue to do our research we're going to have to continue to consider other reforms that would also be necessary to try to achieve the best possible outcomes possible,” Steele said.

A carrot without a stick

But some experts in the criminal justice system are skeptical permanently reclassifying these offenses as misdemeanors will encourage rehabilitation.

“If there's not a lengthy prison sentence hanging over my head as some incentive to go to drug court or some incentive to change my lifestyle and address my addictive behavior, then I'm not going to do it,” said Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

All carrot, but no stick, he argues.

Some misdemeanors carry a potential sentence of one year in jail. But Prater fears overcrowding could lead to diverted sentences, meaning offenders could avoid time behind bars altogether.

Besides, Prater says, most defendants who end up in prison due to drug possession have had multiple chances.

“Though the crime that they ultimately may have gone to prison for is a simple possession case of whatever the drug of choice was, they're not going on first offense. And many times, they're going after they've failed drug court,” Prater said.

Prater wants to see Oklahoma’s criminal justice system revamped. He’s long advocated for a better system that prioritizes treatment programs, but his concerns with these proposals are echoed across the state by DA’s and law enforcement. Prater also doubts the legislature would appropriate needed dollars for county treatment centers.

“We need to fund inpatient and outpatient substance abuse services, mental health services and the like. That's not being funded now. So you think the legislature's going to fund it now that they've made everything — or will make everything — a misdemeanor? It just isn't going to happen,” he said.

‘Threat of incarceration’

Many loss prevention specialists are also wary of the change in the monetary threshold for property crimes. State Question 781 builds on a recently passed law. During the 2016 legislative session, Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Bill 2751. The bill raised general property theft felony bar from $500 to $1,000. This state question ensures all property theft statutes, not just those in the general category, match the same threshold.

Norm Smaligo owns a loss prevention consulting firm. He argues the new law and the state question are missing one key component.

“Most retailers would have no problem raising the felony limit as long as there's an offsetting, what's called an organized retail crime statute passed,” Smaligo said.

An organized retail crime statute ensures thefts from multiple locations would be bundled together instead of counted separately. Furthermore, Smaligo wants to see stronger punishments for repeat offenders under these proposals.

“As retailers we love diversion programs for first time offenders,” Smaligo said. “Because those diversion programs work. But they only work because the threat of incarceration is there.”

Carla Quillen is more optimistic. She carries the weight of her son’s death daily and believes the measures could save other addicts.

“I don't want something like this to happen to somebody else because this is something I have to live with for the rest of my life,” she said.

Instead of waiting for disaster to happen, Quillen says the state needs to be proactive about helping its people confront and treat their addictions.

Oklahoma Engagedis a collaborative series between KGOU and KOSU, with support from the Kirkpatrick Foundation.

Kate Carlton Greer was a general assignment reporter for KGOU and Oklahoma Public Media Exchange.
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