KGOU

First Inmates To Come Before Pardon And Parole Board Under New Law

Mar 11, 2019

A new type of streamlined parole will get its first test next week when the initial group of inmates eligible for the early release are considered by the Pardon and Parole Board.

The parole process, approved by the Legislature last year as part of criminal justice reform efforts, could also be a first measure of how much a board composed mostly of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s appointees will embrace changes intended to relieve Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons. Stitt, who appointed three of the five board members after taking office in January, has made reducing the prison population a priority for his administration.

House Bill 2286, part of a slate of criminal justice reform measures passed last year, established what is called administrative parole. The truncated parole process cuts out two parts of standard parole: the pre-review investigation and the appearance before the board. It’s not automatic, however. The board still must approve the inmates.  Typically, the Pardon and Parole Board approves parole for about a fifth or less of applicants.

“If you meet the five statutory requirements, we skip that part,” Justin Wolfe, general counsel for the board, said of the difference between standard and administrative parole.

Inmates who meet the requirements are automatically eligible. They must have served one-quarter to one-third of their sentences, depending on the date of their crime, and be “substantially compliant” with Department of Corrections case plans. They also must not receive a protest from a victim or prosecutor and not have misconduct infractions for at least six months – longer depending on the severity of the misconduct. Only nonviolent offenders are eligible. Regardless of the administrative parole outcome, inmates remain eligible for traditional parole consideration.

“This isn’t ever going to put you in a worse position than you were before,” Wolfe said.

The law took effect Nov. 1. Because of victim and district attorney notification requirements, March’s Pardon and Parole Board meeting is the first time a group of inmates can be considered for the new parole process.

According to a House of Representatives fiscal analysis, the law should save $16.7 million a year when fully implemented because of lower incarceration costs.

A list of 138 eligible inmates that the Corrections Department sent to the board in late December has been whittled down to 74; they will be considered at Wednesday’s board meeting unless they become ineligible before then.

“Initial estimates were much higher than this,” Wolfe said.

The board approved parole for one-third of nonviolent offenders in fiscal year 2018. That’s an increase from 27 percent two years before, but dramatically less than in 2008, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group. It’s unclear how much of a dent the releases will make in the prison population in the long term or the board’s enthusiasm for the new approach.

Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, is taking a wait-and-see approach before he gauges the new parole’s effectiveness.

“I think the biggest issue with the administrative parole part of the process is that it began in November of last year. … Those individuals who came into the system before November 1 don’t have access to the remedy of administrative parole,” he said.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. More Oklahoma Watch content can be found at www.oklahomawatch.org.

Wolfe disputed this interpretation and pointed to the list as proof that retroactivity isn’t an issue. He said inmates’ time served before the law went into effect would count toward eligibility.

However, both acknowledged that there could be unforeseen hurdles in implementing the new process.

The initial group of inmates’ crimes include failure to register as a sex offender, grand larceny, drug possession and burglary. The longest-serving inmates have been in for two decades. Several inmates have been in for less than a year.

Shade said he has been told that the inmates selected represent “the best of the best” in terms of their behavior. “They have shown the top compliance.”