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Yesterday, Oklahoma saw the largest mass commutation in U.S. history


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Yesterday, Oklahoma saw the largest mass commutation in U.S. history

  • Commentary: It’s time to fight the Democratic mayors who are champions of the carceral state

  • People behind the Girls Do Porn website were just charged with sex trafficking. But complaints were filed about them years ago.

  • Illinois Department of Corrections revises book ban policy

  • Study finds success in overdose and Naloxone training in jails

  • Proposal to limit parolee incarceration in New York gains traction

In the Spotlight

Yesterday, Oklahoma saw the largest mass commutation in U.S. history 

At least 462 people were released early from Oklahoma prisons yesterday in the largest mass commutation in U.S. history. A total of 527 people had their sentences commuted Friday, but 65 of them have detainers and will be released later. Everyone whose sentence was commuted had been convicted of a nonviolent, low-level offense. Supporters say that these commutations will knock Oklahoma out of its spot as most incarceratory state, putting Louisiana back in the lead.

The mass commutation is one of various reform efforts in Oklahoma aimed at easing overcrowding in prisons while helping low-level offenders reintegrate successfully. “Now is the first day of the rest of your life,” Governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican, told the recently freed people. He and other officials pledged to help with re-entry. “We really want you to have a successful future.” In addition to releasing prisoners sooner than expected, the state is ensuring that people are released with state-issued driver’s licenses or identification cards, which are critical for securing jobs, and housing, among other things.

How did the deep red state of Oklahoma end up leading the biggest commutation in history? “In 2016, when every county in solidly conservative Oklahoma handed President Trump a victory, there was another landslide in the state: By a wide margin, voters also approved a plan to shrink prison rolls and downgrade many crimes from felonies to misdemeanors,” reports the New York Times. “For more than a dozen years, legislators in a number of Republican-led states, notably Texas, have sought ways to send fewer nonviolent, low-level offenders to prison. But change has been slower to come to Oklahoma. … The state’s 2016 ballot referendum, which was approved by a 16 percent margin, called for 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 [prisoners] whose crimes would no longer be considered felonies if they were charged today.”

“Kris Steele, a Republican who served in the state legislature from 2000 to 2012, is now the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform,” reports the Washington Post. Steele said criminal system reform was barely on the radar when he was in the legislature. “For the first three or four elections, the methodology was to run a platform of ‘tough on crime.’ Political consultants advised that. There were even predesigned mail pieces with that messaging,” Steele told the Post. But during the most recent election cycle, Steele couldn’t think of a major Republican candidate who ran on a punitive platform. “I think the vast majority of candidates and incumbents ran a corrections reform message.”

Steele said he believes that many voters, including conservatives, have come to realize that over-incarceration contributes to inefficient government, failing to secure public safety or financial savings. (Some commentators have noted, however, that the most significant cost savings won’t be seen until labor costs are reduced, which is unlikely given the strength of corrections officers unions in most states).

Messages of criminal justice reform also align with many of the core values of Christianity, such as redemption, grace, and forgiveness. Steele also notes that Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is more than 10 times that of Canada, according to the nonprofit think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute. More than 1 in 100 Oklahoma adults ares locked up at any given time. “If it’s not your loved one, chances are, it’s a friend,” Steele said. “The proximity, in many ways, has changed people’s thinking.”

Proximity helps voters relate to those who might benefit from reforms, but there is another point to be taken from that statistic: The criminal system is arbitrary. It is highly unlikely that 10 times more Oklahomans deserve to be locked up than Canadians, however one defines desert. It is simply arbitrary that people living in Oklahoma are that much likelier to be put in a cage at some point in their lives.

Sentence length is also arbitrary. It would be interesting to hear someone like Ann Coulter, who, in a tweet, told Oklahomans to “lock your doors,” explain how exactly a person released before their sentence was technically supposed to end is any more dangerous than a person who served out their sentence. In this case, people released were, on average, nearly 40 years old. Most had been in prison for three years and were released 1.34 years early. What did she think would happen in those 1.34 years that would make them any safer? Is there something magical about the number of years set by a legislature, especially after the state’s population changed those numbers because they were too punitive?

Retroactivity, which sounds technical, is key when legislatures choose to reform their systems. The changes that Oklahomans approved in 2016 did nothing for those who had the misfortune of being convicted beforehand. But if sentence reform is the first step, retroactivity the second, there is still a third step to be taken.

The mass commutation “is great and necessary but also shouldn’t have taken so long to do,” says Ruth Hamilton, a criminal defense attorney who used to practice in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It was bad enough that people were spending years in prison for drug and property offenses but absolute insanity once Oklahoma voters made clear that they didn’t believe that people should be sitting in prison for these things.” Hamilton notes that many counties in Oklahoma charge people for their time in jail and prison, which makes her wonder how many of the people being released will still have to pay for their incarceration. “I also don’t think commutation goes far enough–everyone released will still have a felony conviction on their record and will likely still owe a lot of money to the state since fines and court fees are a huge part of the criminal justice system in Oklahoma.”

Udi Ofer, the director of the justice division of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been heavily involved in reform efforts in Oklahoma, told the New York Times, “What’s happening today is an important step forward, but much more is needed.” Ofer said the ACLU and other advocates will continue to push the state legislature to pass other changes next year. “Oklahoma will never substantially reduce its prison population until it tackles sentencing enhancements.”

Stories From The Appeal

Lori Lightfoot addresses guests after being sworn in as mayor of Chicago in May.
[Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images]

Commentary: It’s Time to Fight the Democratic Mayors Who Are Champions of the Carceral State. The mayors of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco wrap themselves in the language of progressivism, but when it comes to the criminal legal system, they’re Trumpian. [Kelly Hayes]

People Behind the Girls Do Porn Website Were Just Charged With Sex Trafficking. But Complaints Were Filed About Them Years Ago. At least three women made police reports about Girls Do Porn in 2015, but recruiters continued to exploit women until the FBI stepped in last month. [Meg O’Connor]

Illinois Department of Corrections Revises Book Ban Policy. Earlier this year, Danville prison removed about 200 books, many of which dealt with race issues. But the new rules don’t go far enough, says one advocate. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg]

Stories From Around the Country

Study finds success in overdose and Naloxone training in jails: “A first-of-its-kind review of Overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution (OEND) in jails shows how effective such programs can be at stopping overdose deaths in the hardest-hit communities,” reports Forbes. “An article published November 1 in the Journal of Correctional Health Care revealed that nearly a third of people who received training while in a San Francisco county jail to use the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and who were given the drug to hang onto, later reported using that training and medicine to reverse an overdose.” During four years of the program, run by the San Francisco-based Drug Overdose Prevention and Education Project in cooperation with Jail Health Services, 637 incarcerated people participated in the training, 67 percent of whom received naloxone upon release. Of those who were given naloxone, 32 percent later said that they used it to reverse an overdose. “This confirms that implementation of OEND in criminal justice settings is feasible and reaches people who have not previously been trained as well as those willing to act as overdose responders,” researchers concluded.”  [Janet Burns / Forbes]

Proposal to limit parolee incarceration in New York gains traction: The New York State Bar Association is backing a legislative push to reform New York’s parole system, including efforts to scale back or eliminate the reasons parolees can be reincarcerated. Last weekend, the association adopted a report and recommendations that seek to overhaul parole by discarding incarceration over technical parole violations before a judge’s review and by creating a system of “earned good time credits” to encourage good behavior. “The report found ‘little or no evidence’ that jailing people on technical parole violations ‘enhances public safety or reduces recidivism as intended,’” according to The City. “A more forceful argument exists that incarcerating people for technical parole violations plays a decidedly negative role in terms of integrating these persons back into the community, and is extremely costly in human and economic terms,” the report states. While the number of people held in New York City jails has been declining, the number of people “locked up over accusations of technical parole violations—like missing curfew, testing positive for drugs or alcohol, or changing residence without approval—is on the rise, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office, costing the city about $190 million annually.” [Josefa Velasquez and Reuven Blau / The City]

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