More than 450 Oklahoma inmates expected to be released from prisons Monday in historic commutation
More than 450 Oklahoma inmates are expected to be released from prison Monday in what state officials said will be the largest commutation in U.S. history.
The Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously Friday to recommend commutation for 527 nonviolent offenders serving time for crimes that would no longer be considered felonies if charged today. Gov. Kevin Stitt said he intended to sign off on the recommendations Friday afternoon, allowing most of those individuals to be released from prison Monday.
"More than 450 Oklahomans are getting a second chance today," Stitt said Friday after the board meeting, surrounded by Pardon and Parole Board staff and members, legislators and other state leaders.
Sixty-five of the inmates recommended for commutation have detainers, so not everyone will be released next week.
House Bill 1269, which took effect Friday, made retroactive criminal justice reforms that reclassified simple drug possession as a misdemeanor and increased the felony dollar threshold from $500 to $1,000 for felony property crimes. Instead of automatically granting retroactive relief to eligible inmates, state lawmakers directed the Pardon and Parole Board to establish an accelerated, single-stage commutation docket for people in prison for crimes that have been reclassified as misdemeanors.
The board considered 814 cases Friday.
Board members voted to deny single-stage commutation relief for inmates who had records of serious misconduct, had a victim's protest letter or a registered victim on file, had received a district attorney protest or would be required to register as either a sex offender or a violent offender. Those who were denied Friday can apply for commutation consideration through the Pardon and Parole Board's typical two-stage review process.
State agencies, the governor's office, community partners and others worked together to ensure successful implementation of the law.
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Steven Bickley, executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, said the goal from Day 1 has been more than just the release of low-level, nonviolent offenders, but also the successful re-entry of those individuals back into society. Leading up to Friday's vote, nonprofit organizations, job providers and other groups visited state prisons for transition fairs to connect inmates who were eligible for commutation with transitional housing, mental health services and other resources to help them upon re-entry.
"It was a moving experience to watch the emotion on the faces of the inmates as nonprofit after nonprofit stood up to explain how they were there to help with housing, counseling, employment, transportation," Bickley said.
He said the Tulsa County Public Defender's Office, University of Tulsa law students and other groups reviewed more than 700 property crimes cases to determine which offenders were eligible to be docketed for single-stage commutation review. The George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Arnall Family Foundation underwrote emergency grants to cover the costs for some inmates to obtain a driver's license or other state-issued ID.
Board Chairman Robert Gilliland said the work leading up to the implementation of the single-stage docket by the governor's office, the Legislature and more than half a dozen state agencies is a "perfect example" of how state interagency cooperation should function. He emphasized that all of the people who will potentially be released are serving time for nonviolent offenses.
"We hope and pray they will be great examples of the fruit of criminal justice reform in our state," Gilliland said.
People in the audience smiled and some wiped away tears as Justin Wolf, the board's general counsel, spent more than eight minutes reading the names of those serving time for drug possession crimes who were recommended for commutation.
The board's recommendation is to commute 1,931 years of sentences, which would result in inmates being released 1.34 years early on average, officials reported. Commuting the sentences could save the state about $11.9 million.
"These are real lives, real people, with real families and with real friends, and they get to go home," House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, one of the authors of the legislation, said during a news conference after the meeting.
After the commutations, Oklahoma will no longer lead the nation in incarceration, Echols said, but he said coming in at 49th in the nation is not OK either.
"We do not have the second-scariest people on planet Earth," Echols said. "What we have to do is build on this momentum."
Stitt said he plans to visit Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft on Monday afternoon to help 70 women there "leave their past behind and exit prison." He encouraged families to join him and other state officials there as they celebrate and challenge the women "to hold tight to the second chance at life that they have."
"My administration is going to continue to work hard to help them integrate," Stitt said.
Joy Block, 54, traveled from Tulsa to attend Friday's meeting because she wanted to be part of history.
"It was emotional," Block said. "I felt like I wanted to stand up and say, 'Hallelujah, I'm in church,' because that's just how overwhelming that it was. People are people, and people are going to make mistakes."
Block served 18 months for forgery and was released from prison about 12 years ago. Now she works to help others through a nonprofit called Walters Way — Regaining Your Life. On Monday, she's planning to offer rides to women who are released from prison in Taft.
"It's not just about getting out, it's about staying out," Block said.