The state parole board is in the business of making life and death decisions for those who come before it. But right now, our prison systems are petri dishes for a virus that could quickly expand into our communities, making the board’s decision a matter of life and death for us all.
By releasing hundreds of people whose sentences are the result of laws Oklahomans no longer believe in, the board would show its compassion for people who are at mortal risk if exposed to COVID-19 and show its wisdom by lessening the risk to society.
Reported COVID-19 cases have so far been low in Oklahoma jails and prisons. But outbreaks in other states’ facilities are a clue to what could happen here if we fail to act quickly. Potential outbreaks in prisons will substantially increase the public’s risk from the virus. Data suggests the burden of infection in a prison, especially an overcrowded, understaffed system like we see in Oklahoma, means that corrections administrators and elected officials must be proactive and remove vulnerable people from behind bars. They must make it as easy as possible for people who are incarcerated and corrections staff to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to protect everyone. If Oklahoma prisons see an outbreak, the pressure on rural hospitals could be enough to reduce the survival rate of those who get sick. The loss of life would be catastrophic.
We must immediately release those who are at a heightened risk for infection and those who pose the least risk to public safety. The board can safely start with people who are elderly, medically at-risk, serving time for technical (i.e., noncriminal) violations of parole or probation, being held only because they couldn’t afford bail, serving time for nonserious offenses and those within a few months of release.
Oklahoma has an older incarcerated population because of the unusually long sentences people receive here. Because of how the human brain matures, after age 40, there is a steep drop in recidivism. Age is also a huge factor in vulnerability to COVID-19, and therefore people 55 and older should be a priority for medical release. Additionally, those with chronic health conditions, especially the large number of people in Oklahoma custody with diabetes or hepatitis C, or any immunocompromising condition or lung condition should be included in May’s release docket. Women who are pregnant or those who have recently given birth should be considered a high priority for release as well.
As a retired Oklahoma judge, I feel obliged to share my insight from a lifetime of experience. Guided by a lifetime of experience, I offer recommendations on the best way to center public safety in response to this nightmare. Under any circumstances, we should release those who are behind bars because of poverty, bureaucratic regulation or those who have aged out of criminal behavior. This pandemic ensures that it’s not only our pocketbooks and consciences that benefit from giving these folks a second chance to make right; our public health capacity benefits as well.
Gordon McAllister is a retired Tulsa County judge. He’s is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of judges, police, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals who support evidence-based public safety policies.