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Nine more individuals being assisted through Oklahoma's 'commutation campaign' advance to stage two

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted Monday to advance nine more people being assisted through a "commutation campaign" onto the second stage of review.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a bipartisan coalition of community leaders, has been working to help 46 people seek a sentence reduction.

Most of the individuals are in prison for offenses that no longer carry long prison terms under recent reforms approved by voters and legislators, those involved with the campaign said. All are serving 10 years or longer.

A commutation is a change of sentence to one that is less severe. It is intended to correct an unjust or excessive sentence, not to serve as an early release mechanism from prison.

Last month, the Pardon and Parole Board conducted an initial review of the first 23 applicants being assisted by the campaign and voted to move them on to stage two.

However, before voting to advance those individuals, some members of the board expressed some hesitation and concerns about the prospect of releasing people without any sort of treatment or supervision. Board members asked the campaign to provide additional information for stage two that might help address some of those concerns, including information about when the applicants would be eligible for parole and whether the applicants had post-imprisonment supervision included in their judgment and sentencing.

On Monday, the board reviewed the remaining 23 applicants being assisted through the campaign and voted to advance nine to stage two. The other 14 applicants were denied. One applicant reviewed last month already has been released through a judicial review process.

Board members did not discuss individual cases before voting.

John Estus, chief of staff for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said a few of the applicants on the September docket had some minor misconducts that occurred during their incarceration and had lengthier criminal justice system involvement than the other applicants who were considered by the board last month.

Former state House Speaker Kris Steele is chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. He also serves on the Pardon and Parole Board.

Steele said he was not involved in the selection of applicants who were assisted by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. He said he checked with legal counsel and was advised that he did not need to exclude himself from voting on those cases.

"I've treated the applications that were selected and assisted by (Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform) just like I would any other application," he said.

The Pardon and Parole Board uses a two-stage process for commutation reviews. During a stage two commutation hearing, the offender will appear before the board via video conferencing. The offender's family and friends may speak on his or her behalf or submit letters of support. Victims or their representative, judicial representation from the court of conviction, a representative from the arresting law enforcement agency and the district attorney can protest the application.

Ultimately, the Pardon and Parole Board will vote whether to recommend each person to the governor for commutation. For an application to be presented, at least three members of the five-member board must favorably recommend a commutation. Only the governor can approve a commutation.

Estus said those involved with the commutation campaign are fully committed to helping the remaining 31 applicants navigate the process and secure strong support networks should they be released sometime in the near future.

"We're Number One in incarceration in Oklahoma because of excessive sentences like these," Estus said. "If we're able to shave cumulatively a few hundred years off of these sentences, we will have done our job. We respectfully disagree with the denials, but we do look forward to respectfully engaging with the board going forward. We know they take their job seriously, and we appreciate their candor during this process."

Those involved with the campaign are making a lot of progress in securing support networks that would help the applicants successfully reintegrate if their applications are ultimately approved by the governor, Estus said.

He said they've been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they've received for the campaign. Estus said it's an injustice that thousands of people in prison are serving "excessive sentences that they would not receive had they been sentenced today."

"If we can succeed here, it would be a great way to set up a larger conversation about how to make some of these new laws retroactive," he said.

Very few applicants are granted commutation or even advance to the second stage of consideration. During the 2018 fiscal year, the Pardon and Parole Board considered 477 commutations. Only 19 advanced to stage two. Of those, just 10 were given favorable recommendation to the governor.

DeLynn Fudge, executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, said the administrative office has been inundated with pardon and commutation applications. They would normally get four to five commutation applications a day, but lately they've been getting 12 to 15, Fudge said.

She said a number of factors are likely contributing to that increase, including the fact that a number of different groups have been working to help inmates apply for commutations.

In addition, several investigators who talk to inmates have heard there's a rumor going around the prisons that commutations are a "get out of jail free card," Fudge said.

"There's some misinformation going on out there," she said.

Another possible factor is that Gov. Mary Fallin is at the end of her term. Generally, when a governor is at the end of a term and not seeking re-election, they're more amenable to considering commutations, Fudge said.

A change in administrative rules might also have contributed to the increase. In the past, there was no limit to how often a person could apply for commutation. As of Sept. 15, a person who applies for commutation and is denied must wait three years before reapplying.

Related Photos
An inmate is pictured at the Oklahoma County jail. [The Oklahoman archives]

An inmate is pictured at the Oklahoma County jail. [The Oklahoman archives]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-d9db465699f92a89ba5b4fb0a204ac31.jpg" alt="Photo - An inmate is pictured at the Oklahoma County jail. [The Oklahoman archives]" title="An inmate is pictured at the Oklahoma County jail. [The Oklahoman archives]"><figcaption>An inmate is pictured at the Oklahoma County jail. [The Oklahoman archives]</figcaption></figure>
Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut,... Read more ›

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