Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Oklahoma grants clemency to 2% of all prison inmates

Across Oklahoma on Monday, 462 inmates doing time for drug possession or similar nonviolent crimes had their sentences commuted as the first step in an effort by state officials to shed the title of the nation’s incarceration capital, reported the New York Times.
“This is truly a blessing, to be able to get out on something like this, when you get overlooked so often,” said Ms. Faircloth, who plans to return to Willow, Okla., and hopes to attend college and score a job at a Hobby Lobby store.
As she and the other prisoners left the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, they embraced relatives, some of whom they had not seen in months or years. Camera crews crowded around, recording a scene that would have been unfathomable in the state just a few years ago.
For more than a decade, legislators in several states have sought to send fewer nonviolent, low-level offenders to prison, in an effort to save money on incarceration and reserve resources for going after more serious criminals. Those efforts have occurred in states led by both Democrats and Republicans, including neighboring Texas.
But change has been slower to come to Oklahoma, which continues to vie with Louisiana for the highest per-capita imprisonment rate in the country.
Voters forced the hand of Oklahoma lawmakers in 2016 when, by a wide margin, they approved a plan to shrink prison rolls by downgrading many felonies to misdemeanors, including simple drug possession and minor property crimes.
The Legislature then approved a measure this year making that law retroactive and allowing the state’s pardon and parole board to more quickly review the sentences of many inmates whose crimes would no longer be considered felonies if they were charged today.
On Friday, the pardon and parole board recommended immediately commuting the sentences of 527 prisoners under that law, or about 2 percent of the state’s prison population of just under 26,000 inmates.
The governor, Kevin Stitt, ordered the commutations, and all but 65 of the 527 inmates walked out of prison on Monday; the remainder were being detained because of issues with their immigration status or because they face charges in other states, according to Oklahoma officials.
In addition to releasing the inmates sooner than expected, the state is taking other steps favored by criminal justice reform advocates to help the newly released prisoners with re-entry into society. Those include ensuring that inmates are released with a state-issued driver’s license or identification card, which are crucial for securing jobs, housing and other needs.
State officials said the prisoners being released had on average spent three years incarcerated, and were being let out an average of 1.34 years early. About three out of four are men. Officials also estimated that the release would save about $12 million in incarceration costs.
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