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An organization that provides free legal representation to Oklahomans with excessive sentences warns the Pardon and Parole Board’s proposed rules changes will effectively eliminate commutations in the state.
In 2018, a group of law students working with the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office founded Project Commutation. The organization works to help navigate incarcerated Oklahomans through the commutation process. It also offers reentry services.
Recently, Project Commutation Program Director and Managing Attorney Morgan Hale noticed a newly published proposal by the Pardon and Parole Board.
“The eligibility requirements to apply for commutation in the state of Oklahoma right now are very broad. You basically just have to be in the custody of DOC,” Hale told The Black Wall Street Times Wednesday.
“But what these new proposed rules are going to do is basically just eliminate peoples’ ability to apply for commutation,” she warned.
According to the Pardon and Parole Board’s website, the proposed rules would amend Title 515, subchapter 3 and add additional requirements to become eligible to apply for commutation.
If approved, the rules would require prisoners to fulfill at least one of four requirements before they can apply for commutation.
- A change in the sentencing range for one or more of their current offense(s) since the time of sentencing (For instance, State Question 780 and 781 reclassified most low level property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in 2016) or
- Inmates without a projected release date (serving life with or without parole) become eligible for commutation consideration after 30 years of incarceration or
- Inmates whose application is made pursuant to a recommendation from a trial official or
- Inmates whose eligibility is certified thereto by the Governor.
The state opened up public comment on the proposed rules on Dec. 1. Oklahomans can email their opinions to email@example.com.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board will host a public hearing on the proposed rules on Jan. 8, 2024 at 9 a.m. inside room 1013 of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, located at 4345 N Lincoln Blvd, OKC 73105.
The board will accept public comment submissions from Dec. 1 through the conclusion of the Jan. 8 meeting.
To view a copy of the proposed commutation rules, visit page 263 of this link.
In a state that remains among the top incarcerators per capita in the world, Hale warns the proposed rules changes would “be detrimental.”
Board says it seeks “efficiency” with commutation rules proposals
Ultimately, the Board seeks to drastically reduce the amount of commutation applications they receive.
“The overarching goal is to promote fairness, transparency, efficiency, and consistency in the Pardon and Parole Board’s procedures,” the Board states in the proposal. It argues too many prisoners have submitted incomplete applications or submitted applications after being denied multiple times.
Meanwhile, Project Commutation Program Director Morgan Hale believes the board simply wants less work on its plate.
According to Hale, the Board received 31 applications in November for the first-stage commutation process. It denied all but one. In December, out of 39 applications, only one was approved.
“They’re already not passing commutations through. I think they’re just trying to create less work for themselves. It is not about the human beings, the individuals in DOC. It’s about how little can they do,” Hale told The BWSTimes.
Is Oklahoma reneging on criminal justice reform?
For years Oklahoma was the number one incarcerator per capita in the world. For three decades, it incarcerated more women per capita than any other government on Earth.
Oklahomans first initiated the criminal justice reform process in 2016 after passing SQ 780 and 781.
Outgoing Republican Governor Mary Fallin went on to commute dozens in 2018.
In a move that brought Oklahoma’s ranking down, incoming Republican Governor Kevin Stitt committed the sentences of hundreds of prisoners in 2019.
Meanwhile, state leaders have slowly begun to rollback the hard-won bipartisan justice reform measures. Earlier this year, Gov. Stitt signed into law a bill that makes simple drug possession and property crimes a felony after the fourth charge.
After dropping to fourth highest incarcerator in 2021, a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows Oklahoma’s incarceration rate has begun to tick back up. The prison population increased 2.3 percent from 2021 to 2022, reflecting a rise to 22,745 prisoners in Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
“I can’t imagine Oklahomans would be excited about that,” Hale said.
The impact of proposed rules changes on commutations
When it comes to the proposed rules changes, people serving life without parole, such as former death row prisoner Julius Jones, would have to serve 30 years before even being eligble to apply.
Hale said there are many prisoners in DOC who should not be required to serve 30 years before seeking relief.
“Julius Jones obviously worked out in a way. He was saved from being put to death, but he was only cut to LWOP,” Hale said. “Now, he’s not eligible for commutation again. So, will Julius Jones be afforded anymore relief even if he is innocent? It’s just unclear, and I think that is an injustice as well.”
The Pardon and Parole Board doesn’t define a “trial official” either. Hale believes it would apply to the district attorney who tried the case, the judge who sat on the case or the current DA of the district.
Yet in a state where District Attorneys have been accused of hiding evidence, such as in the case of death row prisoner Richard Glossip, it’s unclear how any prisoner could find support from a trial official.
Poll: Oklahomans want more criminal justice reform
Notably, Oklahomans continue to show strong support for adding more justice into the state’s criminal legal system.
A poll from June 2023 year shows 71 percent of Oklahomans want to see more done on criminal justice reform. A whopping 64 percent say they feel safer or as safe as they did in 2019, prior to the implementation of major criminal justice reform measures.
The poll was conducted by WPA Intelligence on behalf of Arnold Ventures and the Justice Action Network.
Meanwhile, the District Attorneys Council hasn’t stopped fighting to roll back the justice reform measures from 2016. Hale said it would be highly unlikely for a DA in Oklahoma to recommend commutation for anyone if the rules become approved.
“I will tell you right now that does not happen. The DAs in this state do not like admitting they’re wrong,” Hale said.
Ultimately, she believes the fourth requirement, a letter of support from the Governor, is “the most absurd” of the proposed rules.
“Most of DOC will be unable to apply. So if there is an excessive sentence, an unjust sentence, but they dont meet one of those requirements, they’re just out of luck,” Hale said. “It’s moving us backwards instead of forwards and is only going to make our incarceration rates worse than they are.”
To submit public comment on the proposed commutation rules, email firstname.lastname@example.org or mail a letter to Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, Attn: Rules, 2501 N. Lincoln Blvd., Suite 201, Oklahoma City, OK 73105.
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