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Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board seeks stiffer commutation requirements

Kara Chapman, a 38-year-old Comanche resident who was granted commutation last year, holds her certificate of commutation on Dec. 4, 2023. The Pardon and Parole Board is considering stiffer commutation requirements that could be implemented by next year. Chapman would likely still be in prison in the rules were in place now.
Keaton Ross
/
Oklahoma Watch
Kara Chapman, a 38-year-old Comanche resident who was granted commutation last year, holds her certificate of commutation on Dec. 4, 2023. The Pardon and Parole Board is considering stiffer commutation requirements that could be implemented by next year. Chapman would likely still be in prison in the rules were in place now.

Three and a half months removed from prison, Kara Chapman is striving to rebuild her life.

The 38-year-old mother works most days waiting tables at a catfish restaurant in Comanche. On days off, she volunteers with a local food pantry or drives 30 minutes north to visit her four children in Marlow. She hopes to progress through a transitional program and move into a duplex where she can have overnight visits with her kids.

“When I found out I’m going to prison, and I’m going for a cool minute, I had to make a decision on if I believe there’s a plan for my life or if I just go hard and do what I want,” Chapman said. “There’s plenty of drugs in prison. But I made the decision that I’m going to trust in God’s plan and make the most of this.”

In October 2019, Stephens County Judge Ken Graham handed Chapman a seven-year prison sentence on a child neglect charge. She wasn’t supposed to sniff freedom until late 2024.

But after considering her excellent disciplinary record, educational attainment and volunteer work while incarcerated, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended in 2022 that Gov. Kevin Stitt reduce Chapman’s sentence. Stitt signed off on the commutation recommendation, and Chapman was released from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft on Aug. 23.

The opportunity Chapman had to earn early release could soon be unavailable to the vast majority of Oklahoma prisoners. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is considering an administrative rule changethat would place several restrictions on when Oklahoma prisoners may seek commutation.

Current guidelines allow most prisoners to seek commutation at any time, though they must wait at least three years to reapply if an application is rejected. The proposal making its way through the administrative rules process would create the following criteria for commutation eligibility:

  • The sentencing range for one or more of a prisoner’s current offenses has statutorily changed. For instance, if a legislative proposal to create a felony classification system is implemented, some prisoners may become eligible for commutation. 
  • The prisoner does not have a projected release date and has served at least 30 years.
  • The prisoner has a favorable recommendation from a trial official, such as a district attorney or judge. 
  • The prisoner has a favorable recommendation from the governor. 

In a summary statement filed with the Secretary of State’s office, Pardon and Parole Board counsel Kyle Counts wrote that the rule changes would promote fairness, transparency, efficiency and consistency in the board’s procedures. During an August 2022 board meeting, Counts said the overhaul of eligibility criteria is partially in response to an Oklahoma County Grand Jury report that criticized the state’s commutation processes.
Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Tom Bates said the proposed rules would weed out applications with little to no merit, such as a person sentenced to life in prison filing for commutation within months of arriving in state custody. He said some board members are uncomfortable with the notion that they might be overruling a judge or jury.

“Can sentences be excessive?” Bates said. “Yes. We’re just trying to put some guardrails and determinations around that.”

If approved by the board, Bates said the proposed rules are subject to legislative review and final approval. A public comment hearing is set for Jan. 8 at 9 a.m. at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority Building.

Commutations in Oklahoma accelerated in 2017 after the voters passed State Question 780, which reclassified several drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Lawmakers made the law retroactive two years later, prompting Gov. Stitt to sign off on the mass commutation of more than 460 state prisoners on Nov. 2, 2019.

In the years following the mass commutation, estimated to be the largest in U.S. history, Stitt and parole board members faced heightened scrutiny from district attorneys and other law enforcement officials over a perceived lax attitude towards commutations.

That criticism intensified in February 2021, when Laurence Paul Anderson brutally murdered three people in Chickasha less than a year after Stitt approved his commutation application. A grand jury investigation released in May 2022 found that Anderson was improperly placed on the commutation docket in August 2019 after the board rejected an application of his two months earlier.

Morgan Hale is the managing attorney and program manager at Project Commutation, a Tulsa-based nonprofit that represents prisoners who claim they were excessively sentenced. She said adding restrictions would be a major blow to thousands of Oklahoma prisoners who use commutation as motivation to be productive and stay out of trouble while incarcerated. A single misconduct write-up can jeopardize a prisoner’s opportunity to appear before the board, Hale said.

“This has real-life consequences for these people,” Hale said. “Some of them have worked really hard and at the very minimum they should be afforded their five-minute hearing.”

A Washington County judge sentenced William “Trey” Livingston III to 40 years in prison in 2010 for vehicular manslaughter, a crime that requires offenders to serve at least 85% of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Livingston, who was 35 years old at sentencing, expected to be incarcerated until at least his late 60s.

“It was hard to come to terms that I had children who were six and nine when I came in, knowing that I just now abandoned them and by the time I get out they’ll have kids or grandkids of their own,” Livingston said. “You also know at that point, OK, my folks will die, and my family will pretty much be gone.”

Livingston worked a full-time job, earned a college degree, and started an advocacy program against drunk driving while incarcerated. At the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, he gained the trust of prison staff and created an art guild where prisoners could paint, draw, crochet, and do woodworking.

After years of legal back and forth, the Pardon and Parole Board in 2019 recommended that Livingston’s sentence be reduced from 40 to 15 years. Stitt signed off on the proposal, and Livingston was released in January.

Livingston, who lives in Tulsa with his fiancée and works with Project Commutation, said it’s disheartening that prisoners in a similar situation might soon not have a shot at early release.

“There are so many people in there doing the right thing and all they want is a chance to someday get a job, get an apartment, pay their taxes and just be free,” Livingston said. “So many people have learned their lesson, but we can’t see past their worst decision and moment.”

Chapman said she plans to attend the Jan. 8 hearing and speak against the proposed rule changes. She said such changes would cause thousands of incarcerated people to lose a key motivation for success.

“There are so many people that go to prison and don’t do anything or try to change; they just sit in front of their TV,” Chapman said. “For those of us who go in and work hard and try to make positive changes, commutation is the only place that we have to be seen. To not even have the opportunity to present their case makes a lot of people lose hope.”

Bates said the board plans to consider all public input and modifications to the proposal are possible before rules are set for a vote. Written comments can be mailed to the Pardon and Parole Board or emailed to rules@ppb.ok.gov. In-person attendees at the Jan. 8 meeting will be allotted a maximum of three minutes to speak and must sign in by 9:10 a.m.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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