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Oklahoma To Consider Ignoring Past Convictions When Ordering New Sentence

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A group working to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population launched an initiative petition on Tuesday that could lead to the release of hundreds more inmates.

The bipartisan group of business, political and religious leaders filed the constitutional ballot initiative to prohibit prosecutors from using previous felony convictions to enhance sentences in nonviolent cases. It would also allow people who already had such sentence enhancements to petition the courts for relief.

Once its petition is finalized, the group will have 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The same group launched a successful initiative in 2016 that reduced criminal penalties and ultimately helped lead to the release of hundreds of inmates from prison last week.

Among those supporting the initiative are Gene Rainbolt, the chairman emeritus of BancFirst Corporation and former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

Oklahoma last year surpassed Louisiana as the state with the highest overall incarceration rate, but last week’s mass commutation is expected to move the state out of the top spot.

“The progress we are seeing, all started with the overwhelming support for reform Oklahomans demonstrated in 2016 with the passage of State Question 780,” Steele said in a statement. “With this ballot initiative, Oklahoma voters have another opportunity to continue implementing best practices and taking an additional step toward improving our criminal justice system.”

Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the District Attorneys Council, declined to comment Tuesday, saying he hadn’t seen the proposal, but state prosecutors have resisted similar changes in the past.

About 75% of people admitted to prison in Oklahoma were sentenced for nonviolent crimes, and 80% have no history of violent crimes, according to a 2017 state task force report.

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