- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Two proposals designed to control future growth in the Oklahoma prison population have received enough signatures to qualify for the state ballot, supporters said Thursday.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform delivered more than 220,000 petition signatures Thursday to the Oklahoma secretary of state’s office, which will verify the numbers. The first proposal would reclassify some drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The second would require the state to estimate the resulting cost savings and direct that money toward crime prevention efforts, such as rehabilitation programs, education and job training.

The group has collected more than 110,000 signatures on each measure, said former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, who is spearheading the reform effort. Each measure requires 65,000 verified signatures to be eligible for the ballot.

“We believe it’s time to take a smarter approach to public safety,” Steele said. “By submitting these signatures to the secretary of state, Oklahoma voters will determine if they want to remove the felony conviction for individuals battling addiction and mental illness and redirect those savings back to counties for treatment and rehabilitation services.”

Oklahoma’s state-run prisons are operating at 122 percent capacity, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terri Watkins said in March. Drug offenders make up 26 percent of the state prison population. Another 23 percent of inmates are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes.

Efforts to enact similar reforms in the past have failed to make their way through the Legislature, but this year lawmakers approved a series of new laws promoted by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin to reduce the prison population.

The new laws - which Steele said “complement” his own group’s ballot proposals - allow district attorneys to file misdemeanor charges instead of felonies for certain crimes, reduce mandatory sentences for drug offenses, raise the felony threshold from $500 to $1,000 for property crimes, and expand the number of offenders eligible for drug courts.

But some lawmakers have expressed concern about the ballot measures. Prosecutors, who decide whether to pursue misdemeanor or felony charges in these cases, would be required to pursue misdemeanors under the ballot proposals, which could shift more costs from the state to the county level, said state House Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha.

“I just believe absolutely that (when) talking about public safety, especially in rural communities, we can’t afford to be reckless as they are in the ballot initiatives,” Biggs said.

The Department of Corrections’ revenue from appropriations this year was $366 million, down 7 percent from its original certified mark after a series of mid-year state revenue failures. Fallin announced the department would receive emergency funding from the state’s rainy day fund.

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