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Forum to be held on state questions on November ballot

(Source KSWO) (Source KSWO)

LAWTON, OK (KSWO) -Two proposals on the November ballot in Oklahoma that would make possession of any illegal drug a misdemeanor instead of a felony are sparking controversy.

Supporters of State Question 780 and its companion question 781, say the changes are needed to reduce the state's prison population, by cutting the number of people behind bars, and also shortening their sentences. 780 would change drug possession to a misdemeanor, and 781 would divert the money saved from incarceration costs into a drug rehabilitation fund.

"We have to do something,something major," said Ken Sue Doerful, Criminal Defense Attorney.

That change,Doerful says is declassifying the charge of possession of illegal drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. She says this change would ease the problem of the rising budget demands of the Department of Corrections, and the dangers posed by overcrowded prisons.

"The prisons are packed in people get killed almost every week," said Doerful. "The drugs, the cell phones, all the contraband that comes into the jails and prisons. There's no way to stop it because we don't have any money to police it inside."

However District Attorney Jason Hicks says while reducing the number of inmates in prisons is important, he hopes that isn't the only thing voters will consider.

"I've got a real concern about targeting legislation at reduction of prison population and that's the only thing that's being taken into consideration," said District Attorney, Jason Hicks. "It's not taking any consideration on crime rates and I think that specifically ties into we're not taking into consideration of keeping the public safe."

Hicks says if the law is changed, people will be indirectly encouraged to keep using drugs because the punishments won't be as harsh. Hicks says the system that's in place right now is working. They have a drug court program that allow the inmates to get help, such as DWI courts or family drug courts that take 18 to 36 months to complete.

"A misdemeanor is going to require no more than a 12 month sentence, so we're going to have people that look at us and just go I'm not going to drug court because I could go do a year in the county jail quicker than I could do the drug court program," said Hicks. " I think it will severely harm drug court. Drug court across the state of Oklahoma has been very successful."

Doerful says we shouldn't take pride in the fact that we incarcerate more women than any other state and rank second nationwide for locking up men.

"We should be bragging about how many grade schools, middle schools, high schools and regional colleges that we have, not because the only way to get jobs in is to build a prison or correctional facility," said Doerful.

Hicks says he believes there are other alternatives to reducing prison overpopulation in Oklahoma that have more value than reducing punishment for drug possession.

"There can be a higher release rate through the parole board and putting some money into parole, and putting some money into having enough detention officers to make sure they have someone to report to," said Hicks."I think this would be a step in the right direction."

Hicks says there are many other states that have passed similar questions like 780 and 781 and the feedback is that incarceration rates are actually higher now than before. On the other hand, Doerful says her goal is to go out of business because she won't need to defend anyone accused of drug possession if this is approved.

There will be a forum on all of the state questions to discuss and educate the community. It will be at Duncan Regional Hospital Pavilion Tuesday night starting at 6:00pm.

Copyright 2016 KSWO. All rights reserved.

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