Criminal justice reform debate escalates

Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation crime data shows an 11% spike in the number of shoplifting cases this year. (Photo Illustration) 

OKLAHOMA CITY — These days there’s often a crumpled criminal citation crammed in the back pocket of the shoplifting suspects Norm Smaligo busts.

Having worked 26 years as a loss prevention consultant, Smaligo is not particularly surprised the suspects already were ticketed for stealing from another retailer just a few hours earlier.

But what frustrates him is the new level of brazenness he says shoplifters are exhibiting since voters approved the passage of State Question 780 in 2016.

The measure reclassifies certain nonviolent drug and theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, in an effort to reduce the number of incarcerated people. A companion piece, Question 781, is supposed to send any savings to counties to pay for rehabilitation programs.

Smaligo, who heads Oklahoma Retail Crime Association, said Oklahoma State Bureau of Inves­­tigation crime data shows an 11% spike in the number of shoplifting cases this year.

“I think it was bad law to begin with,” Smaligo said. “I think that we have to make these adults be responsible for their actions. I think there has to be some real consequences for stealing. It’s not like they came in and stole a candy bar. We’re talking about people who steal all day, every day and it pays very well.”

Smaligo’s group is among those embroiled in an increasingly contentious debate about the effectiveness of the ballot question. The controversy is spilling into the halls of the state Capitol and has legislators taking a closer look at whether the criminal justice reforms are working as intended.

Unfounded reports

Ryan Gentzler, director of Ok­­lahoma Policy Institute’s Open Justice Oklahoma program, said the measure has served as a good first step in lowering incarceration rates.

It’s helped thousands of people avoid felony convictions for simple possession of controlled substances and low-level property offenses such as larceny, he said.

In its first year, 14,000 fewer felonies were filed in district courts and about 11,000 more misdemeanor cases filed, he said.

And though the prison system remains “desperately overcrowded,” its population has dropped 5.5% over the last year, Gentzler said.

Reports of crime “skyrocketing” are unfounded by public data, he said. Larceny is up 1.6% statewide from last year, but that’s still less than before 780 took effect, he said.

“The claims that theft is rising is really debatable,” he said. “In two years, we’ve actually seen fewer thefts reported to law enforcement.”

Nationally, Gentzler said more than 35 states have increased their felony theft thresholds. From 2008 to 2015, those states saw a larger decrease in property crimes than the states that didn’t. Oklahoma increased its threshold from $500 to $1,000 in 2016, officials said.

In any case, Gentzler said the most thieves don’t know what the felony threshold is.

“It’s certainly not driving the larger trends,” he said. “People who commit larceny are generally people who are desperate who need to support themselves and their families. They’re going to do that no matter what the felony threshold is.”

Mixed feelings

Steve Emmons, executive director of Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, said his members continue have mixed feelings about the ballot measure.

One of the biggest concerns deals with how it treats stolen guns, he said. Officers believe it’s too lax to treat stolen weapons as misdemeanor offenses because they’re used to committing other crimes.

There also are fears that reclassifying offenses won’t deter Oklahomans from re-offending, he said.

“I don’t think anybody is really opposed to finding better ways to handle people who are convicted because we know what sort of situation (the Department of Corrections) is in,” Emmons said. “ (But there’s) a concern that there’s not as much deterrent out there because the penalties have become much lighter.”

Endless cycle

It’s obvious Oklahoma has some problems with its criminal justice system, said state Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle. Conley hosted an interim study Thursday probing reform efforts, including how well SQs 780 and 781 are working.

Conley said while the state’s prison population is shrinking as intended, offenders are instead ending up in county jails that aren’t funded well enough to offer the rehabilitation programs voters intended.

Officials testified how jails are now a revolving door for addicts, with some racking up as many as 20, 30 or 40 misdemeanors offenses, without serving a year in jail, she said.

Lawmakers need to figure out how to curb those repeat offenders, she said.

Legislators must figure out how to adequately fund Department of Corrections even while increasing funding to county jails so they can afford to provide the rehabilitation programs for addicts and the mentally ill, she said.

“Those people that really need the rehabilitation aren’t getting drug court,” she said.

The majority of drug courts are set up to treat offenders who have felony convictions, not misdemeanors. SQ 780, meanwhile, made possession of major drugs like fentanyl, meth and crack cocaine a misdemeanor, she said.

So instead of seeking help, inmates know they just need to spend a couple of days in jail before being released, she said.

For some for offenders, it’s simply become an endless cycle.

“Our constituents and our taxpayers are feeling the brunt of what’s happening,” Conley said. “Because they’re the ones that are suffering from getting their homes broken into, their cars broken into and their things getting stolen.”

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