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Study: Oklahoma felony filings fall after voter-backed law

Posted at 8:31 AM, Nov 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-29 09:32:11-05

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The number of felony cases filed by Oklahoma prosecutors dropped nearly 30 percent in the year after a voter-backed plan to ease criminal penalties took effect, according to a new study released on Wednesday.

The study, which analyzed felony filings since the new law took effect in July 2017 to make many drug and property crimes misdemeanors, was conducted by Open Justice Oklahoma, a project of the Tulsa-based, liberal think-tank Oklahoma Policy Institute funded largely by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

The study shows that the number of felony cases with simple drug possession fell from nearly 19,000 in fiscal year 2017 to fewer than 5,000 during the same time in 2018. The number of felony property crime cases dropped from 13,000 to about 9,000.

"Thousands of Oklahomans are avoiding felony records for low-level drug and property offenses, while crime rates continue to fall," the study's author, Ryan Gentzler, said in a statement.

Gentzler also pointed out that while the number of felony drug possession cases fell over the year, statewide the number of felony cases of possession with intent to distribute, increased by about 14 percent. He noted the increases were particularly high in a handful of counties and suggested prosecutors there could be filing harsher charges as a way to circumvent the intent of State Question 780.

But state prosecutors bristled at that suggestion, saying charges of possession with intent to distribute require evidence beyond simple possession, such as scales, packaging or large quantities of cash.

"I take high offense to the suggestion that prosecutors are filing possession with intent as opposed to so-called simple possession," said Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the state's District Attorneys Council. "If you don't have the evidence, you can't file it."

Laura Thomas, the district attorney in Payne and Logan counties where the number of possession with intent to distribute cases has increased, said there are many other reasons for the uptick. She said a narcotics division in the district's largest city was fully staffed last year and has been targeting drug dealers. She also cited at least two cases in which she charged two young defendants with possession with intent to distribute instead of drug trafficking, which called for a much harsher sentence and fewer treatment options, even though the quantity of drugs would have justified the stiffer charge.

"When dealing with a person who has not had previous felony convictions, is young and is amenable to treatment we might file downward," Thomas said.


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