Rather than candidate, ballot initiatives are grabbing the headlines ahead of election. A local leader is at the forefront of one such measure.
Dan Little, an attorney and Madill resident, has joined with Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform. The group filed Oklahoma State Question 805, Criminal History in Sentencing and Sentence Modification Initiative with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office Nov. 12.
If it becomes law, the measure would end the use of certain sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses and allow people currently serving those sentences to petition the court for relief.
A ballot initiative becomes a state question once it receives support in the form of 177,958 valid signatures or 15 percent of votes cast for governor in the 2018 election.
Little said he has been a longtime supporter of sentencing reform. He recently sat down with The Madill Record to share why he believes now is the time for Oklahomans to support sentencing reform.
“For me, as a small town attorney, I have felt that way too many of the sentences were way too long,” Little said. “Part of the reason has been that I’ve seen so many, I call them kids um get into trouble in their late teenage years through their twenties. But then they become good citizens in their thirties and for the rest of their lives. Now, some of those kids, unfortunately got long sentences and went to prison for long periods of time. And I’ve always felt that if they had not been given long sentences by the age of 30 they would’ve matured and learned and been good, law abiding citizens and not a threat to anybody. But at the same time, some of those individuals have remained in prison through their thirties, through their forties…um so it’s been a waste of that individual’s life. It’s been a terrible expense to the taxpayers because it costs a lot more to imprison a person than to educate a person.”
During the last three years, Little kept in regular contact with Kris Steele and Gene Rainboldt, two leaders of the Oklahoma’s latent criminal justice reform movement as it gained stream across the state. Steele is a former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Rainboldt is BancFirst’s chairman emerteris.
“More recently, when I saw individuals such as Kris Steele, such as Gene Rainboldt who’s one of my favorite people pick up this crusade, I took the initiative. I did not wait to be called. I called Kris and visited with Gene on other occasions. I said to Gene, ‘we’re both on way too many boards but I cannot be more passionate about this cause and I’m willing to help any way I can. And they’ve had a lot of success [referring to the passage of SQ780 in 2016].
A history of law and order
The Texoma region includes a pair of states in Oklahoma and Texas that have a strong history of law and order in modern times, Little said.
“I think Oklahoma during the 80’s and 90’s particularly as did Texas became such a strong quote law and order state, hard on crime,” he said, “and passed these laws that took away a lot of the discretion from judges and just mandated the longer sentences and mandated that after three offenses, which has resulted in a lot of wasted lives, and a lot of wasted tax money.”
However, Little gave credit to Oklahoma’s neighbors to the south for reversing course in recent years.
“One of the most encouraging things is that Texas which had been one of the most extreme states in the other direction has become one of the most reformed states so I have to give credit to Texas for showing that it can be done in somewhat of a similar political atmosphere as Oklahoma,” he said. “Texas is just as quote socially conservative as Oklahoma but I think the leaders and leadership just realized that it had been a societal mistake and needed to be corrected.”
Little said his opinion is that a lot of crimes deserve punishment.
“A lot of it is drug related and alcohol related,” he said. I think there should be a lot more sentences of 90 days in the county jail. And I think 90 days serves the purpose of getting them dried out and sober and the punishment part of it. But I also think that 90 days combined with drug testing which can now be combined with alcohol testing could also be changed to a 30-day sentence to be served on the weekends.
“By doing that you don’t cause the person to lose their jobs if they have one. It’s not as disruptive for the family. It does away with the weekend which is the worst punishment. It does away with the opportunities to get drunk or use drugs.”
Little said 30-day sentences have been issued in Marshall County.
“Judge Richard Miller was particularly flexible and very much interested in the work centers and I think really tried to be creative in structuring the different punishments which included serving on the weekends,” he said.
Little said Miller worked as a prosecutor before being an associate district judge. He is also a big believer in combining jail sentences with public works.
“Also, it would be great while they’re in the county jail if we could get them to do public work,” he said. “You know, we had that for a number of years with the work centers. I felt it was really unfortunate when the work centers got cut out. They served a valuable purpose not only for the city and county but also for the inmates.”
An adversarial scenario
Little said he knows where prosecutors are coming from during trials.
“I think it’s difficult to be a prosecutor in the DA’s office and not measure your success in part by the number of convictions you get and also the lenthgs of the sentences you get,” he said. “Generally, we have an adversarial process. And you have the state attorneys, the defense attorney and they’re both trying to pull the jury. And so I think it’s hard for the District Attorney’s Office to sit back and not be competitive and just say this isn’t a competition and what is in the best interest of this individual and society in general. And if the induvial is not a physical threat then I think all kinds of alternate possibilities should be explored.”
Little recounted a case where he defended two college students from Carter County about two decades ago.
“I represented two young males who had never had any problems with…legal problems,” he said. “But they were freshmen at Southeastern [Oklahoma State University] and fell under the bad influence of some older people and participated in an armed robbery.”
The pair were caught shortly thereafter and there was no question about guilt,” Little said.
“It was purely a question for the judge to do what he thought was in the best interest of those two individuals and society in general,” he added. “Unfortunately, there had been not long before this happened, a[n] armed robbery and the shopkeeper was killed. And so politically it would have been so easy for that judge to throw the book at them and given them a sentence of 20, 30 or 40 years. The judge had the judicial courage to look at all the circumstances and make the decision that these two young males had just temporarily just gotten off track, had the courage to give them probation and they served their probation without any problem and have been good law abiding citizens ever since. it could have been so easy for them to still be in prison 20 years later and have 20 years to go. They have an aunt whose from Marshall County which is how I got involved with the case. She told me they’re both married with children and doing great.”
In a statement, Steele, the
executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform said it is time to take the next step forward.
“The state has the second highest imprisonment rate in the country and taxpayers spend nearly half a billion dollars on an overcrowded system that proves dangerous for both employees and incarcerated Oklahomans,” Steele said. “One of the main reasons for Oklahoma’s continued incarceration crisis is its use of sentence enhancements and extreme prison sentences.
“Compared to the national average, Oklahomans spend nearly 70% longer in prison for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes. This ballot initiative would end many of these sentence enhancements for a number of charges, ensuring people would not serve additional years in prison because of prior crimes for which they have already been held accountable.”