Early waves of criminal justice reform have generated a gargantuan 1,300% leap in favorable recommendations for commuted prison sentences, with paroles up a robust 41%, according to state government data.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended commutation for 140 inmates from March through August, compared to only 10 during the same span in 2018. There were 436 parole recommendations compared to 309.
Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steven Bickley credited the sharp rise in commutations directly to changes in state law that lessened sentences for simple drug possession and certain property crimes. Bickley said the boost in paroles is attributable to a change in attitude, because the pool of candidates was roughly the same as a year ago.
“I do think the result of it is inmates really have a sense of hope, and you think about hope and how important that is to the rehabilitation of people and the mental health of people,” Bickley said. “It’s a powerful force for good. That is what I think our board is bringing to this process. And Judge McCall, his real mantra is he wants to make sure everyone gets a fair hearing.”
Allen McCall, a retired longtime district judge for Comanche and Cotton counties, runs the board hearings. McCall is the only member of five who has previous experience on the board.
McCall, who first was appointed to the board by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2017, said a common complaint he heard at the time was that the board already would have its mind made up before hearings took place.
“I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t like that perception,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure everyone knows we don’t have our mind made up.”
McCall emphasized the process must be fair and transparent. No matter the outcome, he said, inmates, victims, prosecutors and defense lawyers must feel they were fairly heard and respected.
He said a new attitude toward criminal justice reform has infiltrated the state, including Gov. Kevin Stitt, legislators, the board and citizens.
“We’ll see if in a year or two we have a lot of recidivism and we went a little overboard,” McCall said. “But we have to do something different because what we’ve done the past 30 years hasn’t really worked.”
Stitt has denied three of the 436 parole recommendations and four of the 140 commutations in that six-month stretch, according to a spokeswoman. The board recommends approvals, but the final say lies with the governor.
Stitt recruited Bickley to become the agency’s executive director, which happened in early July with board approval.
Bickley said he thinks the current law changes will continue to flood the system with commutations for the next six or eight months.
Eventually, another round of criminal justice reforms likely will keep the volumes flowing, he said.
A potential trend to keep an eye on is a rise in pardons.
Pardon recommendations increased 23% in the six-month comparisons, with the number of cases considered up 16%. So, not a large effect or change.
Bickley thinks people carrying felonies on their record for simple possession who struggle to find work or are unable to pursue their chosen careers will seek pardons in larger numbers to then expunge those convictions. Other motivations likely will be people who want Second Amendment rights restored to go hunting with family or friends.
So far, the typical favorable pardon recommendations are for people who have been good, Bickley said. They have paid their dues and are rehabilitated and model citizens.
“I think we’re probably a couple years from that before (that trend) starts hitting, but I do think it’s a logical extension of the process,” he said.
Other legislative changes are helping streamline board processes.
The creation of an administrative parole function allows the board in a single vote to recommend a batch of inmates with non-violent crimes for parole because each meets all the qualifications without need of individual case investigations.
Justin Wolf, the board’s general counsel, said the requirements are substantial compliance with in-custody plans, no victim or district attorney objections, and no misconduct over a given time period.
Wolf emphasized the new process isn’t an early parole.
“It’s a streamlined process, not an accelerated process,” Wolf said.
Bickley said board members also look at prison relief options as a tool to monitor actions on the outside or reward behavior even if a person won’t be released.
For example, an inmate is scheduled to be released in three months after accumulating good-time credits. However, that inmate is eligible for parole now with one year of supervision. The board may opt to let the inmate out now rather than unconditional release with no supervision in three months.
Or, in another scenario, an inmate is serving three consecutive sentences. The board may consider parole for that inmate, knowing that he or she won’t be released because there are another two sentences still to be served.
“Our board oftentimes wants to recognize the rehabilitative behavior that the inmate’s been doing even though it doesn’t mean they’re going to get out,” Bickley said. “And so those are the kinds of things that we’re trying to help and present to the board. And we’re trying to give them tools and techniques and spreadsheets that make it easier to draw their attention to their decision-making factors.”
Correction, clarifications: This story misstated the type of release considered for inmates with consecutive sentences. It has been corrected. The story was edited after publication to clarify the origin of Allen McCall's appointment to the board, as well as the amount of supervision for parolees.