Criminal Justice

Jonathan Small | February 5, 2024

Oklahoma’s proposed commutation rules unwise

Jonathan Small

Oklahoma law allows individuals convicted of crimes to seek a commutation, which changes their sentence to one less severe, in situations where officials determine an unjust or excessive sentence has been handed down.

For example, after Oklahoma voters chose to lower the penalties for certain property crimes a few years ago, individuals previously convicted of those same crimes for the prior longer sentences were able to seek commutations.

There have been no major controversies generated by Oklahoma’s commutation process, which is used relatively rarely (other than the previously mentioned mass commutation produced by voter action).

Even so, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board now wants to make it more difficult for inmates to get a commutation.

Currently, inmates can request a commutation unless they have already been denied one in the last three years.

But the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has proposed rules that would require inmates to meet one of four criteria:

  • The sentencing range for a prisoner’s current offenses has statutorily changed.

  • The prisoner does not have a projected release date and has served at least 30 years.

  • The prisoner has a favorable recommendation from a trial official, such as a district attorney or judge.

  • The prisoner has a favorable recommendation from the governor.

Notably, Oklahoma lawmakers have chosen to set strict limitations on who is eligible for parole (such as time-served requirements), but not for commutation. This shows lawmakers want greater flexibility in considering commutations.

Also, the proposed rules take aspects already present as a check-and-balance in the current commutation process and instead make them a prerequisite for beginning the process. For example, trial officers can already provide “a written recommendation or protest prior to consideration” of a commutation request. And the governor is also involved.

We already provide a role for district attorneys (whose opinions carry much weight) and the governor, but the board’s proposed rules make those individuals the gatekeepers for the commutation process rather than experts to be consulted.

Commutation requests are handled on a case-by-case basis for a reason. There are factors that can be mitigating for one person that don’t exist for another convicted of the same crime. For example, it was once common for women to get harsher sentences for failing to prevent child abuse than the sentence handed down to a male who actually abused a child. That’s widely seen as an injustice today and provides an example of the type of situation where a commutation may be sought.

On the whole, Oklahoma’s commutation process has worked well for many years. The proposed rules from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board are completely unnecessary and counterproductive. They should be shelved and the current system maintained. This is yet another classic case of bureaucratic overreach that must be defeated.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Loading Next