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October 26, 2019

Retroactive application of Oklahoma sentencing reforms sets up record-setting day for commutations

This recent article from Oklahoma, headlined "‘Largest single-day commutation in nation’s history’ expected to take place in Oklahoma next month," reports on a notable example of an interesting process being used to make a criminal justice reform initiative retroactive in the Sooner state.  Here are the basic details:

More than 400 Oklahoma prison inmates are expected to pass through an “expedited” commutation process on Nov. 1, a number believed to be the largest one-day total in United States history, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley said.

The accelerated process is thanks to House Bill 1269, a bi-partisan bill which was passed this summer and made retroactive a number of criminal justice reforms that reclassified some drug and property crimes.

The new law goes into effect Nov. 1 and the Pardon and Parole Board is holding a special meeting that day where it will review nearly 900 inmates the law makes eligible for the expedited docket. “All the research I’ve done, this will be the largest single-day commutation in the nation’s history,” Bickley said....

The Nov. 1 hearing differs from the normal commutation process in a number of ways, Bickley said. Rather than the typical two-step process that often takes several months, the hearing is expected to take less than an hour. “It’s definitely going to be a much faster up-and-down process,” he said. Inmates who pass through the expedited process are expected to be released from prison in November.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, in a statement, offered praise for the entities preparing for the large number of commutations. “I applaud the hard work of the Pardon and Parole board and the staff as they prepare for this historic day. The board is wisely implementing a thorough process to ensure their actions on Nov. 1 reflect the intentions of Oklahomans who voted for State Question 780, while also prioritizing the safety of our communities. The Department of Corrections has also been a committed partner in putting people first in this process by hosting transition fairs inside state prisons to connect non-violent offenders with the resources they need to succeed when they re-enter society.”

When State Question 780 was made into law in 2016, it made possession of “personal use” amounts of most drugs a misdemeanor and upped the felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000.  But it wasn’t until the passage of HB 1269 earlier this year that those changes were made potentially retroactive for those still in prison for those crimes.

The new law mandates that, rather than strict retroactivity, the Pardon and Parole Board must decide which inmates affected by HB 1269 get an accelerated commutation and which inmates must go through the standard commutation process, Bickley said.

There are two dockets on Nov. 1, one for 793 inmates on the “drug possession” docket and one for 99 inmates on the “property crime” docket. Everyone on those two dockets is technically eligible for accelerated commutation, though the list will be whittled down extensively, Bickley said.

First, there are a number of inmates on the two lists who will not be recommended for accelerated commutation due to misconduct while in prison. Bickley said some inmates on the lists were involved in the events that led to the recent lockdowns at a number of state prisons, and those inmates would not receive recommendations. Additionally, district attorneys across the state can file challenges to specific commutations that may affect whether an inmate gets a recommendation, Bickley said, and as of Wednesday the Pardon and Parole Board had heard from only three of the more than 20 district attorneys across Oklahoma.

“And of course you could have some who receive recommendations and are signed off on by the governor, but they have additional sentences to serve or a detainer by another agency who will not be able to leave prison due to those factors,” Bickley said. Still, he expects “more than 400 and less than 500” inmates to be granted commutations by the end of the hearing, he said.

October 26, 2019 at 11:56 AM | Permalink

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