More Oklahoma Drug Offenders Could Be Choosing Prison Over Treatment

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter
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Two laws reclassifying some drug offenses as misdemeanors took effect in Oklahoma Saturday, but a state district attorney warned Sunday that they will not achieve their goal of lowering prison populations.

State voters approved the laws in November, changing theft and drug possession of under $1,000 from a felony to a misdemeanor and capping prison time at a year, Tulsa World reported Sunday. District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler complained that the lowered sentences will cause more drug offenders to choose prison over treatment programs because the treatment programs often last well over a year. (RELATED: Five Oklahoma Criminal Justice Bills Killed By Single Representative)

Most of the state’s treatment programs last 18 to 36 months, and under their previous status as a felony, drug crimes also held a sentence of multiple years.

“Few, if any, drug-dependent people will opt to participate in a program which would last longer than the maximum punishment they could face,” Kunzweiler told Tulsa World.

Members of the state’s drug court system were more optimistic, however. The law may take a chunk out of program participation, Community Service Council member Tammy Westcott told Tulsa World, but the program will survive.

Westcott argues that the best solution is a new misdemeanor drug court to lower drug treatment commitment to match the penalty adjustment.

“It’s not really rocket science,” Westcott said. “Let’s change the program and the funding stream. We can create a program that’s nine months. We don’t have to keep an 18-month program for misdemeanors.”

Yet Kunzweiler remained unconvinced.

“If this is a shift in public policy, then I will seek to adapt that change in reality,” he told Tulsa World. “However, my suspicion is that we will be asked to deal with the same groups of individuals — who have been addicted for multiple years — and we will be asked to do the same for less.”

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