OKLAHOMA CITY -- Proponents of criminal justice reform were celebrating a bipartisan legislative proposal that could result in the early release of thousands of Oklahomans serving time for nonviolent crimes.

Supporters said House Bill 1269 would provide post-conviction relief to as many as 2,400 Oklahomans serving prison time for crimes that are now classified as misdemeanors. The measure would impact individuals whose convictions took place prior to the passage of State Question 780.

State Question 780, which was approved by voters in 2016, 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, then sends any savings to counties to pay for rehabilitation programs.

"It is time for Oklahoma to get out of the business of arresting and prosecuting individuals afflicted by drug addiction," said state Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, who co-authored the measure, in a statement. "We have Oklahomans that are labeled as felons, and their crimes would be legal or a much lesser crime today.

"These folks are disenfranchised, and their families are suffering. This legislation seeks to heal these wounds and continue Oklahoma down the road of responsible criminal justice reform."

The measure, which took effect in 2017, passed with 58 percent support statewide, though voters in urban areas endorsed them more enthusiastically.

"I think it (the legislative measure) makes a lot of sense both from a justice point of view and from a fiscal point of view," said Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma, which focuses on criminal justice data.

He said a little less than 10 percent of current prisoners are serving time for drug possession as their most serious offense. It wasn't clear how many Oklahomans would be eligible for re-sentencing under the theft provision, which impacts individuals who stole $500 to $1,000 in property.

"That's quite a big number when we're so overcrowded, and the crimes they were sent to prison for are now misdemeanors," Gentzler said. "I think it just makes a lot of sense if they weren't going to go to prison if they were convicted today. They should have the opportunity to at least apply to be resentenced under current law."

The change also would impact people under court supervision, but there won't be as much cost savings for those individuals, he said.

The Oklahoma District Attorneys Council could not immediately be reached for comment.

Under the proposed law, the Department of Corrections would be required to send the names of anyone serving time for simple possession back to the local district courts with instructions for individual resentencings, said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, which put Question 780 on the ballot.

More than 1,000 individuals serving time for simple possession will be released from prison, Steele said. Another 1,400 also serving time for other offenses could expect a lesser sentence, he said.

"I think it is a super-positive, important and timely move on the part of the state," Steele said. "The fact that they are taking action to ultimately implement the will of the people to all Oklahomans who battle addiction and/or mental illness and in essence say that addiction is better treated through treatment than punishment."

He said he's heard from a myriad of grateful, thankful and hopeful families that loved ones will get to come home and receive the help they need.

"All this does is fulfill the promise of 780, which the people of Oklahoma supported," said Trent England, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank.

"And it takes that principle and makes it retroactive so that our criminal justice system is consistent," he said.

England said Oklahoma's criminal justice system needs to be fixed so that punishments are fair regardless of when a crime was committed.

"Our criminal justice system should reform lives, not ruin them," said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, in a statement. "This legislation gives new hope to Oklahomans whose lives have been destroyed for crimes that would be a misdemeanor today."

Oklahomans have spoken loud and clear on the issue of criminal justice reform, said House Majority Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, in a statement. Echols also co-authored the measure.

"I look forward to working with members of both parties to find not Democratic or Republican solutions, but Oklahoma solutions to the issues facing this state," he said. "This bill will be a great step in that direction."

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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