While Stitt seeks more funding for parole board, his appointments could have more impact
Gov. Kevin Stitt wants more funding for the Pardon and Parole Board to expedite requests from offenders. But a more crucial factor might be who he appoints to the board, which historically denies most parole requests.
“Governor Stitt can do more for criminal justice reform by himself by who he appoints to the
Pardon and Parole Board than almost anything else,” said Kevin Armstrong, board president for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE).
The governor appoints three of the five Pardon and Parole Board members, and all three seats are currently available for Stitt to fill.
Stitt has proposed spending $150,000 to hire two additional staff members at the Pardon and Parole Board to expedite requests, which have increased in recent years as criminal justice reform advocates have worked with inmates to complete applications.
Stitt’s office is currently reviewing names to appoint to the board.
“He’s looking to appoint people who will help ensure a thorough review process but also people that help us become quicker at reviewing names and sending them to his desk,” said Donelle Harder, Stitt’s spokeswoman.
There is currently a backlog of more than 1,000 requests for review by the board, and Stitt would like to approve more names than has been customary in recent years, Harder said.
Changes in state law now require two board members to have at least five years of training or experience in mental health, substance abuse services or social work. Traditionally the board is made up of former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
“When you pack the Pardon and Parole Board with former judges and prosecutors, just by their very nature, not because they are bad people, their mindset is to prosecute people and put them away,” Armstrong said.
Less than 34 percent of nonviolent parole requests were approved in fiscal year 2018, according to state data.
Steele’s term has expired
Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, was appointed to the board in 2017 by former Gov. Mary Fallin.
The former speaker of the House has become a leading advocate for criminal justice reform and voted favorably on requests more often than any other member of the board. He voted to approve 50 percent of them.
“Imagine what three reform-minded selections would do for the board,” said Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst at Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Steele’s term on the board has expired, along with that of Robert Macy. Both will continue to serve on the board until Stitt makes an official nomination. Stitt also has another vacant seat to fill.
Allen McCall, a retired judge, is on the board as the appointment of the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Larry Morris, a retired probation officer, is on the board as the appointment of the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals. The terms of McCall and Morris both expire in 2023.
Since 2008, parole releases in Oklahoma have declined by 77 percent, according to data compiled by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Less than 34 percent of nonviolent parole requests were approved in fiscal year 2018.
Only one in three eligible inmates apply for parole, in part because the conditions attached to being paroled can be expensive and difficult for an individual who has been incarcerated for several years.
Legislative changes are underway that could make parole less challenging for released inmates, which could increase the number of inmates moving forward with parole requests.
That would continue to put a strain on the Pardon and Parole Board, which Stitt said will play a key role in reducing the state’s nation-leading incarceration rate.
“To move the needle, it will require us to change the way we see the person who is in a cycle of incarceration for nonviolent crimes,” said Stitt in his State of the State address this week.