Lawsuit Puts Spotlight on Sentence Commutation in Oklahoma

A horrific killing spree that saw one individual’s heart cut from their chest drew the attention of media outlets throughout the country a year ago, but the focus was directed more to the shocking facts of the crime itself. Some of the corresponding stories, though, focused heavily on the fact that the Oklahoma man charged with the killings had been granted early release from prison only three weeks before his arrest.

Sadly, that case is once again in the headlines due to a lawsuit filed in federal court by families of the victims. The families are seeking damages for the deaths of their loved ones, claiming that the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is responsible as a result of its commutation recommendation that the governor subsequently approved. That commutation led to the accused killer’s 20-year prison sentence ending early, resulting in his release from confinement.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim the parole board and the governor ignored the fact that the accused killer had been denied release from prison only one year earlier. They claim this violated a rule requiring three years between applications for release, and they allege the release was only granted to reduce the state’s prison population.

Given the facts of this case, you might have reservations regarding ideas related to lessening the length of any sentence imposed by a judge. Consequently, some facts related to commutations may aid in your understanding and ultimate position on the issue.

How does commutation work in Oklahoma?

Under the current laws and regulations, a person serving a prison sentence may be granted early release from confinement after completing at least one-third of the sentence imposed by a judge. Parole does not change the original sentence aside from allowing a person to serve the sentence’s balance while living in the community under the supervision of a parole officer. A violation of the terms and conditions of parole may result in the person returning to prison to serve the remaining balance while in custody.

Alternatively, unlike parole, commutation changes the sentence initially imposed by a judge by reducing its length. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board must recommend the commutation of a sentence before it goes to the governor, who is the only state official with the power to actually approve the recommendation.

According to news reports, the man charged with the murders was in prison because he violated the terms of his original probation sentence in a drug case. He was sentenced in 2017 to serve twenty years in prison for said probation violation.

The original 20-year sentence was commuted to nine years, but he only served three years before his release from prison in January 2021. He was arrested on February 9, 2021, the same day the murders were allegedly committed. These facts would seem to call into question the mechanism that allowed his sentence to be reduced, but first, let’s take a closer look at the rules for commutating a sentence.

Purpose of and limitations of commutation of a prisoner’s sentence

As claimed by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, commutation is described as a “rare” process intended to provide the governor with a method for correcting an unjust or excessive sentence. It is not to be used solely to effectuate the early release of a person serving a prison sentence.

The federal lawsuit mentioned earlier contains allegations against the governor and the parole board for using commutation to reduce prison crowding in hopes of winning favor with voters during an election year. The plaintiffs will have an opportunity to prove their claims at a trial. Nevertheless, here are some things we know about the commutation in question:

·      A 20-year incarceration sentence for a probation violation where the original sentence was supervised probation as opposed to imprisonment may be the type of “unjust or excessive” sentence the commutation process is intended to correct.

·      There are no reports regarding the accused having a history of violent crime. In fact, he was originally sentenced to probation on a drug charge, but he violated his probation and was subsequently sentenced to imprisonment for twenty years in 2017 on that same charge.

·      When his sentence was commuted in 2021, the accused killer had already served four years of that 20-year sentence. The commutation reduced the sentence from twenty years to nine years, leaving him five years to do. Prisoners in Oklahoma can earn credits reducing the length of their imprisonment, which was likely a factor in this case.

It’s clear that the fallout is immeasurable for the plaintiffs. Still, until evidence is presented at trial in the civil suit, it’s simply too early to pass judgment on the commutation process as a whole.

What conclusions can be drawn?

The debate over the pros and cons of a system that facilitates prisoners’ early release, whether through parole or commutation, has gone on for decades. For every critic who believes that penalties imposed by a judge should be served in full without any modification, there are also those who want governors to increase their use of the power to correct injustice in sentencing.

Only time will tell which side wins out in this debate and whether there are ultimately any winners at all.

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