Oklahoma Releases About 500 Inmates in Push to End Mass Incarceration
To date, this will be the largest commutation of prison sentences in U.S. History! Nearly 500 inmates were set to be released from prisons in Oklahoma on Monday November 4th. The move by the states officials came in response to a push for mass incarceration reduction, put into motion by voters back in 2016. Oklahoma has an incarceration rate that is 10 higher than Canada’s. At any given time, more than one out of 100 adults in the state are behind bars.
This past Friday, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend that the sentences for over 527 prison inmates be commuted by the Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt. Out of the 572, 426 were released from custody on Monday after being processed and receiving Stitt’s approval. “We have got a lot of paperwork to do,” Stitt said of the secretary of state’s office. “I’ve got to sign at least 450 of these this afternoon.”
Steven Bickley, the executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, noted the significance of the move in a press release on Friday.
“This is a historical day for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, as we send the largest single day commutation of sentences in our nation’s history to the governor’s desk.” With this vote, we are fulfilling the will of Oklahomans. However, from day one, the goal of this project has been more than just the release of low-level, non-violent offenders, but also the successful reentry of these individuals back into society.”
Reducing Mass Incarceration
The commutations come with the effort to reduce the incarceration rate in Oklahoma, which was put into place by the state’s voters in 2016. With the passage of State Questions 780/781, certain simple drug possession charges and nonviolent property crimes less than $1000 were reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors. The ballot propositions also mandated that savings realized from reducing incarceration be used to fund drug treatment and rehabilitation services for the state’s residents.
“It has been a moving experience to see our state and community partners to help connect our inmates with the resources they need for a successful reentry and I thank Governor Stitt, DOC Director Scott Crow, and the many local nonprofits, churches and job creators that have stepped up to ensure these inmates have every opportunity for success,” Bickley added.
With a bipartisan vote in January, lawmakers made the criminal justice reforms approved by voters apply retroactively and authorized the prison board to schedule dockets for the mass commutation of sentences.On Friday, the first day the law went into effect, 814 prisoners applied to have their sentences considered for commutation.
Stitt, who campaigned for office, promised to reduce the state’s prison population and applauded the work of the Pardon and Parole Board. “As we move the needle in criminal justice reform, my administration remains committed to working with Oklahomans to pursue bold change that will offer our fellow citizens a second chance while also keeping our communities and streets safe,”
The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said that the reforms signal a change in the state that was sparked at the ballots back in 2016.
“From the 30,000 foot view, the criminal justice landscape is years ahead of where it was three or four years ago,” Kiesel said. “It would have been impossible before State Question 780 passed in Oklahoma; that signaled to lawmakers there was an appetite for reform.”