OKLAHOMA CITY — Sonya Pyles believes in redemption and second chances.
The 45-year-old Tulsa woman said prosecutors used her four or five arrests to enhance her criminal sentence. After failing to complete probation, Pyles, who struggled with addiction and mental health issues, was sent away to prison for nearly three years for nonviolent offenses.
Prison didn’t help. Pyles said she didn’t receive any rehabilitation, but upon release faced employment and housing challenges because of the felony conviction on her background.
“I believe in accountability,” she said. “I believe in justice, but I do not believe in serving years and years, decades on top of decades for nonviolent crimes,” she said. “It’s not working. You’re only going to get worse. You’re not going to come out rehabilitated.”
Now a project coordinator for Tulsa Lawyers for Children, Pyles said she entered a recovery program and turned her life around. Still, she knows hundreds of people are serving 30 years in prison for nonviolent drug crimes because of their prior criminal histories. Her father served 15 years on a nonviolent charge. He faced 30 to life because of his prior convictions.
Pyles is hoping her story of redemption encourages Oklahomans to support State Question 805.
Proponents say the citizen-led ballot measure, which seeks to alter the state’s Constitution, will stop prosecutors’ use of sentence enhancements against offenders never convicted of a violent felony.
Opponents, though, argue that Oklahoma’s laws sometimes classify violent crimes as nonviolent.
Domestic abuse, the abuse of vulnerable adults, animal cruelty and using a computer to solicit a minor are all crimes that would not be eligible for enhancements if SQ 805 passes — no matter how many times an offender commits them, said Angela Marsee, president of Oklahoma District Attorneys Council and a district attorney in western Oklahoma.
Marsee said she prosecuted someone who sexually abused a vulnerable adult while working as a job coach. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison 2017 and already has been released.
If the man were to reoffend under SQ 805, his maximum punishment would be the same as the first time — 15 years — because the crime isn’t classified as violent, she said.
With sentencing enhancements, he would face two years to life in prison.
“It’s dangerous to public safety and to crime victims because it prohibits judges, juries and prosecutors from being able to increase punishments for repeat offenders,” Marsee said. “There are a lot of very serious, in reality, violent crimes that are not considered violent in this state. And that’s why it’s so dangerous.”
She said SQ 805 is tied to the state’s violent crime list as of Jan. 1, 2020, so it doesn’t matter if lawmakers attempt to reclassify nonviolent offenses, she said. The proposed constitutional amendment also is retroactive, meaning inmates could have their sentences modified by the court.
“So what does that do to victims?” Marsee asked. “It promises that there is no certainty in sentencing for victims.”
But Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said the reality is Oklahoma’s prisons are overcrowded and have been for some time. The state has one of the highest incarceration rates per capita, spends more than $500 million a year to incarcerate people and there’s no evidence that administering excessive sentences drives down crime or enhances public safety.
SQ 805 takes a step forward to bring some standard or sense to the state’s sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders, Steele said recently during a presentation to Enid Rotary Club.
“At the end of the day, I just want to emphasize that it’s not a free pass,” he said. “This just gives us a chance to bring our sentencing guidelines in line with the national average.”
Steele said a person convicted of a nonviolent drug crime spends about 80% longer in Oklahoma prisons than they would anywhere else in the nation.
He said the state question seeks to limit the practice of adding additional years to someone’s prison sentence simply because they have a previous nonviolent conviction in their past.
Offenders still face the maximum range of punishments set by the Legislature, but they won’t get any additional time because of their past, Steele said. And even if the current offense is nonviolent, SQ 805 won’t apply to someone with a previous violent conviction.
He said SQ 805 will save nearly $200 million, but it will take taxpayers six to eight years to see the full economic benefit.
The measure gives Oklahomans a second chance, Steele said.
But Mackenzie Masilon, public policy and communications coordinator for Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said SQ 805 is going to significantly reduce options for survivors seeking resolution through the criminal justice system.
Most domestic violence and sexual assault organizations are members of the umbrella group, which provides training for advocates, mental health professionals and law enforcement who deal with victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking.
“Our biggest concern when you’re removing the ability for sentence enhancements to be used, you’re saying no matter how many times an offender has committed the crime, they’re going to be treated like it’s the first time,” Masilon said. “There has to be accountability somewhere for victims who seek justice through the criminal justice system.”
Prosecutors rely on enhanced sentences to ensure victims are safe and offenders are behind bars, Masilon said.
She said advocates question why domestic abuse is considered a nonviolent crime to begin with, and perhaps lawmakers need to go back and take a closer look at that next year.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that SQ 805 is the only thing that needs improved upon as far as policy is concerned, but it’s certainly not going to help anything,” Masilon said.