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Oklahoma approves largest single-day commutation in U.S. history

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/4/2019 Kim Bellware
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: People applaud Friday after the Pardon and Parole Board read the names of 527 Oklahoma inmates recommended for commutation at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman/AP) People applaud Friday after the Pardon and Parole Board read the names of 527 Oklahoma inmates recommended for commutation at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman/AP)

In a flurry of signatures Friday afternoon, Oklahoma moved one step closer to shucking its distinction as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the United States. On Monday afternoon, 527 people serving low-level drug and nonviolent offenses will go free in what Oklahoma lawmakers are calling the largest single-day commutation in both state and U.S. history.

The commutation is a success for criminal justice reform efforts in a state that has a long history of harsh sentencing practices and high incarceration rates. It’s also evidence of the Republican-dominated legislature’s willingness to move closer in line with the majority of voters who favor a less punitive approach. The historic commutations come amid nationwide efforts to reduce punishment of low-level crimes and move the U.S. prison system in a more rehabilitative — or at least less punitive — direction.

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Criminal justice reform advocates like Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, agreed that the commutation news signaled a change but cautioned that the road ahead will be a long one.

“From the 30,000-foot view, the criminal justice landscape is light-years ahead of where it was three or four years ago,” Kiesel told The Washington Post. “It would have been impossible before State Question 780 passed in Oklahoma; that signaled to lawmakers there was an appetite for reform.”

In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780 and 781, a pair of ballot measures that reclassified certain simple drug possession and nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors instead of felonies and mandated that the cost savings would go to drug treatment and rehabilitation services. In January, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers voted to make the 2016 laws apply retroactively.

The commutations are just a fraction of the state’s 26,334-person state prison population, but they mean a second chance for the hundreds of incarcerated people who will be freed as a result.

Rose Ortiz of Gainesville, Tex., will be among those outside the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Okla., on Monday waiting to welcome a loved one home. Ortiz’s daughter, Calista, will be released and reunited with her husband and five kids — including a baby whom she gave birth to in prison.

Ortiz told The Post on Saturday that she had doubts at first when she heard her daughter would be eligible for early release. Calista had tried before to get a reduction in her roughly seven-year sentence for drug possession even as she helped other women successfully file for their own early-release petitions.

“When you hear that, you wonder, ‘Is this really going to happen?’” Ortiz said.

At a Friday news conference announcing that the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had unanimously voted to recommend the sentences of 527 state inmates be commuted, first-term Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt declared that “today, we’re implementing the will of the people.”

“They’ve got a lot of paperwork to do,” Stitt said of the secretary of state’s office. “I’ve got to sign 450 of these this afternoon.” Once the parole board makes a recommendation to commute a sentence, it then passes to the governor for final approval.

Stitt, who campaigned on reducing the prison population, noted that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections anticipated it will have “about 2,000 empty beds in our system” by the end of the year. The figure prompted an attendee at the news conference to call out, “Amen!”

On Friday, the first day the retroactive law took effect, 814 prisoners applied for commutation consideration, according to the state Pardon and Parole Board. The state said the mass commutations will save taxpayers an estimated $11.9 million based on costs projected if the eligible prisoners served their full sentences.

Stitt said that in addition to releasing prisoners whose sentences were no longer consistent with their since-reclassified crimes, the Department of Corrections for the first time in state history held a “reentry” fair behind prison walls. Prisoners being released Monday, along with those scheduled for release in the next six months, were connected with services such as housing and counseling support. In some cases, prisoners were able to secure state ID cards or driver’s licenses before their release; though crucial, such documentation can be difficult to obtain for people returning from prison. The effort, Stitt said, was coordinated by a mix of state, local, nonprofit and faith groups.

With a majority of Oklahoma voters supportive of criminal justice reforms, lawmakers in the heavily red state where Republican legislators outnumber Democrats 3 to 1 are increasingly embracing a platform long associated with progressives.

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. In his view from within the state’s Republican Party, Steele said criminal justice reform was barely on the radar during his time 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.

By contrast, during the most recent election cycle, Steele couldn’t recall 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 suspects a few factors are behind the Oklahoma Republicans’ embrace of criminal justice reform. One is a realization that over-incarceration is the definition of inefficient government, producing neither increased public safety nor less crime for the cost. There’s also the issue of faith: The messages of criminal justice reform align with the same values at the center of Christianity, such as redemption, grace, forgiveness and second chances.

But a third factor Steele identifies is more stark: Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is more than 10 times that of Canada, according to the Tulsa-based nonprofit think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute, meaning more than 1 in 100 Oklahoma adults is locked up at any given time.

“The sad reality is, we’ve reached a point of saturation, given our high incarceration rate: 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.”

That’s not to say Oklahoma will be pivoting hard toward reform with any speed. As Steele notes, local district attorneys and law enforcement allies are among the staunchest, and most effective, holdouts. “They tend to be very effective in the legislature in thwarting or slowing these [reform] efforts,” he said.

For Ortiz, who will see her daughter outside of prison walls for the first time in two years, the wait has been long enough. “We’ve missed having her around as a mom, sister and daughter,” Ortiz said.

Monday’s reunion for Calista will probably include dinner with her siblings and will definitely include a lot of hugs for her children — especially the baby. Ortiz said that because she lives 2½ hours from the prison, the family wasn’t able to bring the baby to visit as often as Calista would have liked.

“When you have a little baby, every day is important. Every week, every month is important,” Ortiz said. She reflected on her daughter’s time incarcerated and added, “She’s had to miss a lot.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the predicted timeline for “about 2,000 empty beds” in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections system. Gov. Kevin Stitt indicated the beds would be empty by year’s end, not Monday night, as originally reported. The article has been updated.

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