Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
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,” Ruth Hamilton, a criminal defense attorney who used to practice in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told the Daily Appeal. “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.”
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