Criminal Justice

Hundreds released from Oklahoma prisons due to corrections reform

November 5, 2019

Ray Carter

Due to the passage of a ballot initiative and associated legislation that reduced the penalties for some property and drug crimes, hundreds of Oklahoma inmates were released on Monday following the largest single-day commutation of sentences in U.S. history.

Last week the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously to commute the sentences of 527 state inmates. Of that total, 462 inmates were expected to be released on Monday, Nov. 4.

“We really want you to have a successful future. . . This is the first day of the rest of your life.” —Gov. Kevin Stitt

Gov. Kevin Stitt observed the event by meeting with and congratulating an estimated 70 women being released from the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility at Taft who were among the newly commuted inmates.

“We really want you to have a successful future,” Stitt said. “And that’s what I want to leave you with: This is the first day of the rest of your life. You’re going to have ups and downs.”

He noted that 28 job fairs have been conducted in recent months to connect those being released from prison with potential employment opportunities, and urged the former inmates to take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“Let’s make sure you guys do not come back here again,” Stitt said.

First Lady Sarah Stitt was among those who advocated for the job fairs, which she said were necessary to allow the former inmates to successfully re-enter society.

“We can’t just shake your hand, pat you on the back, and say, ‘Have a good life,’ because we know the barriers to re-entry into society are difficult,” she said. “There’s a lot of slammed doors. There’s a lot of hard things to come around.”

Like the governor, the first lady urged those being released to not let this opportunity go to waste.

“Take the hands that are offered,” she said. “And we are praying for you and we are excited for you, and I can’t wait to see what comes next for all of you.”

Under State Question 780, which received voter approval in 2016, the threshold for felony charges was raised to $1,000, meaning the theft of less than $1,000 in property now results only in misdemeanor charges. Certain drug-possession crimes were also made misdemeanors under the state question.

This year, lawmakers approved House Bill 1269, which made the provisions of SQ 780 retroactive, allowing the commutation of sentences for those convicted of felonies for crimes now considered misdemeanors.

Stitt previously hailed the commutations as “giving hundreds of nonviolent, low-level offenders an opportunity at a second chance.”

Americans for Prosperity-Oklahoma (AFP-OK), which lobbied for passage of House Bill 1269, also praised the change.

“We’re excited to see the smart on crime, soft on taxpayers approach to policy come to fruition and make a real impact on Oklahomans,” said AFP-OK state director John Tidwell. “Thank you to Oklahoma’s lawmakers, Governor Stitt, and the Pardon and Parole Board for recognizing the importance of second chances.”

While the early release of so many individuals convicted of theft and drug crimes was hailed by many advocates of corrections reform, the law has also drawn criticism. At a recent Senate interim study, the president of the Oklahoma Retail Crime Association said the passage of SQ 780 has fueled an increase in property crime in Oklahoma. A January survey conducted by the association of 11 retailers with 272 physical locations in Oklahoma found that known theft incidents increased 64 percent between 2016 and 2018.

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