Bill aimed at reforming Oklahoma's parole process approved by House committee
A bill aimed at reforming the state's parole system was approved Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee, as state lawmakers continued to advance changes sought by a criminal justice reform coalition.
House Bill 2273 would require the Pardon and Parole Board to state the reason when denying an inmate parole.
“If the goal of prison is to rehabilitate individuals, I feel we should be telling them why we’re denying them parole," said Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, the bill's sponsor.
The bill also defines certain parole rule-breaking as technical violations, which are unlikely to result in a parolee being re-arrested. Any violation other than commission of a new crime would be classified as a technical violation. If a parolee is dealing with an addiction, that person would be connected with treatment services rather than re-arrested for drug use, West said.
The legislation would also require the board to suggest remedial actions when denying parole for inmates convicted of so-called 85 percent crimes, a category of offenses for which inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. The remedial actions would be designed to help inmates prepare for their next parole considerations.
The bill would also implement earned discharge credits for parolees, allowing them to earn time off of their sentences for following rules and participating in treatment.
The changes in the bill are among the reforms recommended in 2017 by the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force.
During Tuesday's committee meeting, Rep. Rande Worthen, R-Lawton, expressed concern that members of the Pardon and Parole Board weren't consulted about the bill. Worthen, a retired assistant district attorney, said he'd spoken with several members of the board, who said they hadn't heard of the bill.
Leah Samuel, a policy specialist at the Boston-based nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute, said the task force spoke with members of the board before it drafted the recommendations.
The nonpartisan coalition Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform estimates the bill would reduce the state's prison population by 17 percent by 2028.
The bill is similar to Senate Bill 616, which passed out of the Senate Public Safety Committee on Monday. The two bills are among a package of policy proposals being backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. Also among those proposals is House Bill 2310, which would break jury verdicts and sentencing into a two-part process. That bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Two other bills the coalition is backing passed out of the Senate Public Safety Committee on Monday.
Senate Bill 287 would limit so-called habitual offender sentences for people convicted of nonviolent crimes. Senate Bill 421 would outline the difference between simple drug possession and possession with intent to distribute.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has requested more funding for the Pardon and Parole Board and wants to approve more requests for parole, his spokeswoman said last week.