I recently spoke to a grassroots organization about why OCPA is encouraging Oklahomans to vote yes on SQ 805. After I spoke, the organization gave the county sheriff time to express his opposition to SQ 805. I don’t mind a debate, but I do think arguments should be expressed in good faith.
In his pitch, the sheriff began by acknowledging that something needs to be done—that some reform is necessary. He then pivoted and said he doesn’t think SQ 805 is the right reform.
I was left to wonder what reforms the sheriff and so many like him are willing to get behind. To be sure, plenty of individual law-enforcement officers and prosecutors (particularly those who aren’t elected) do favor—or at least don’t actively oppose—criminal justice reforms like SQ 805. Still, when it comes to law-enforcement lobbying organizations, is there any substantive reform they have written, introduced, and lobbied for? Is there a policy that would decrease Oklahoma’s overreliance on prisons that they wouldn’t fight at every turn?
These law-enforcement officials would have us believe they don’t make law, but just enforce it as written. But they are some of the most vocal and active lobbying groups in the state. How many criminal justice reforms have we seen fought by the District Attorneys Association, Sheriffs Association, and Fraternal Order of Police?
Here’s the thing: law enforcement can bring valuable insights to the table. Reformers should seek input from police, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, the Department of Corrections, advocacy groups, and policy experts. Every group brings a different perspective. But some also have powerful incentives—they benefit directly from particular policies. Those within government (prosecutors and police) may see their power diminish with measures like SQ 805. As a think tank advocating limited government, OCPA’s goal is that government wields only as much power as is necessary to support public safety in accord with the moral cause of justice.
To the sheriff’s credit, he did mention that he would like to see front-end reforms designed to keep people from offending or reoffending. Presumably, he was referring to diversion courts or other programs designed to keep young people out of the criminal justice system. While I also support these programs, the legislature has a hard enough time passing criminal justice reforms that will save money. It is much more challenging when a reform requires significant investment.
Criminal justice is like a machine with many moving parts. The fact that SQ 805 only addresses one part of the system is not an argument against it. No reform, including SQ 805, is a magic wand that will fix everything about our criminal justice system. Should SQ 805 pass, other reforms will follow. I hope those who work in state and local government law-enforcement agencies will join us in shaping and advocating for those reforms.
It is easy for the local sheriff to voice support for reform. But unless such officials put their money where their mouth is, no one should give them the benefit of the doubt. I want to work with law enforcement to push reforms that promote public safety and limit government and that are fair for all Oklahomans.
Those who actively oppose SQ 805 owe it to the public to explain what substantive reform proposals they do support—and to champion them.