By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
Friday, Nov. 1, 2019
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend the commutation of sentences for 527 Oklahomans, today. The recommended commutation docket is expected to be signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, allowing the release of hundreds of Oklahomans on Monday.
According to a press release, “This vote signifies the most commutations ever awarded in one day anywhere in the nation and sets the stage for 527 Oklahomans (a total of 1,931 total years commuted) to be reunited with their families and communities on Monday, Nov. 4.”
“This is an unforgettable and unprecedented day for the state of Oklahoma. For too long, Oklahoma has imprisoned more of its citizens than any other state in the nation, and the actions of the Pardon and Parole Board today will go a long way toward reducing our incarceration rate,” said Susan Esco, an Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) board member. “Voters said in 2016 with the passage of State Question 780 that they want criminal justice reform, and public support for these changes remains strong.”
House Bill 1269, which went into effect today, made State Question 780 retroactive. This allows hundreds of Oklahomans who were arrested and charged prior to the passage of SQ 780 to be released from prison and creates a streamlined expungement process to reduce their felony charges to misdemeanors.
House Minority Leader Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City), Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City) and Sen. Stephanie Bice (R-Oklahoma City) co-authored HB 1269.
“Oklahoma is no longer the nation’s top incarcerator,” Echols said. “This historic moment is the clearest proof yet that legislators are listening to the people and acting on criminal justice reform. Oklahoma is going to continue to take smart, practical steps like this one to further reduce our incarceration rate in a responsible manner. Oklahoma’s prison population has been in a sustained decline for three years now, and we aim to maintain that safe, steady decline well into the future.”
Following the meeting, Gov. Stitt announced he will quickly approve the commutations so the commuted Oklahomans can be released Monday. This move reduces Oklahoma’s incarceration rate by 1.7 percent, placing the state in the No. 2 spot for persons incarcerated per capita – behind Louisiana and slightly above Mississippi.
According to the Department of Corrections, Oklahoma’s prison population this week was 26,334 out of a state population of 3,943,079. The projected prison population after Monday’s release is 25,884, taking the prison incarceration rate from 667.8 per 100,000 citizens to 656.4. Louisiana’s per capita prison incarceration rate is 682.6 and Mississippi’s is 648.3, based on analysis of the most recent prison populations reported by those states.
HB 1269 applies retroactively to inmates serving time for simple drug possession and property crimes valued at less than $1,000. Voters approved the reclassification of these crimes from felonies to misdemeanors with the passage of State Question 780 in 2016. HB 1269 made the change retroactive to those previously sentenced. The bill was a bipartisan effort.
Prior to today’s move, the Department of Corrections held several transition fairs in which inmates were connected with organizations available to help them with housing, transportation, employment, health care, mental health care and mentoring upon their release.
Gov. Stitt said a major effort has been made to connect those commuted with the Department of Motor Vehicles to help with obtaining drivers licenses.
“Today is an important day for criminal justice reform in the state of Oklahoma. In just a few days, 527 Oklahomans will be able to do what they’ve dreamt about for months or even years–go home to their families and reconnect with their communities,” said Shanna Gong, Oklahoma Director for FWD.us.
“Under the leadership of Gov. Stitt and because of the commitment of the Pardon and Parole Board and the Legislature, Oklahoma continues to emerge as a leader in the criminal justice reform space,” Gong added. “Other state leaders that believe people who make mistakes deserve another chance, are interested in saving taxpayer dollars by safely reducing their prison population, and understand the importance of maintaining family units, should take note.”
During the press conference, held this morning at the Kate Bernard Community Correctional Center, in Oklahoma City, the 472 names of those voted to be commuted from the from the drug possession docket were read aloud by Justin Wolf, the board’s general counsel. He also read the names of 55 people advanced for commutation on the property crimes docket.
The ACLU of Oklahoma supported SQ 780, and after Friday’s meeting executive director Ryan Kiesel said more Oklahomans should ultimately be released from prison, reported Tres Savage, chief editor of Nondoc.com,
“We are pleased with today’s outcome,” Kiesel said. “But as historic as today is, there are still hundreds of individuals who will remain incarcerated who, if they were convicted today, would not have to step a foot inside a prison wall.”
Echols added, “This is one of many thoughtful and pragmatic steps taking place in overall criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. The Legislature for three years in a row has focused on reforms to reduce the state’s incarceration rate.”
Echols said he and other lawmakers will pursue additional reforms in the upcoming legislative session and going forward.
Click here to watch video of some of these commutation recipients’ stories.