Parole Board Withdraws New Policy Allowing Early Release

Well, it was good while it lasted.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board last month enacted policy changes that would allow some inmates to become eligible for a commuted sentence at an earlier date. The new rules would allow non-violent offenders--including drug offenders serving long sentences for relatively minor drug offenses--to be considered for commutation in as little as 3 years.

The parole board created the following rules among policy revisions:

  • Nonviolent offenders would be required to first serve 36 months.
  • Violent offenders would be required to serve half of 85 percent of their sentence.
  • Nonviolent offenders serving life without parole would be required to serve 22 years.
  • Violent offenders serving life without parole would be required to serve 38 years.

Allowing the earlier possibility of a commuted sentence could potentially ease prison overcrowding in Oklahoma, where the inmate population has more than doubled since 1989. A big reason for Oklahoma prison overcrowding is the fact that the state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation: third highest for men and highest for women. Additionally, Oklahoma's population of inmates serving time for drug crimes is greater than the national average. Whereas, on average, 20% of the nation's inmates are serving time for drug crimes, 27% of Oklahoma inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses.

So it would seem to be a good thing to consider commuting the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders after three years rather than keeping them locked up for 10 years, 15 years, or even more.

Unfortunately, it is not to be--at least not yet.

The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office told the Parole Board that it acted improperly in creating and instituting the policy changes, which in turn required the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to withdraw the new policy.

According to the Attorney General, the Board did not follow the designated rule-making process when it enacted the changes. Now, say members of the Parole Board, they will move forward with the appropriate process as they work to institute change to the state's rules regarding sentence commutation.

Assistant Attorney General Jan Preslar told the board that the process for changing a rule involves the allowance of public comment and requires legislative approval.

Even if the new rules remained in place for the time being, it would not necessarily mean that any inmates would be released earlier than the end of their sentence or their parole date. Commutation is not the same as parole. Instead, commutation is a form of clemency that can only be granted by the Governor. In Oklahoma, no one has been granted a commuted sentence in at least three years.

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