February 11, 2011

Bill Targets Governor’s Role in Paroles

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The new Republican regime at the governor’s office is scrutinizing more than 200 paroles granted by former Democratic governor Brad Henry in the last days of his administration.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the inmates caught in the snafu has already been released from prison. State law requires that as soon as the governor signs paroles, the inmates must be released.

The review was triggered by Gov. Mary Fallin’s new secretary of state, Glenn Coffee, who decided that his office could not certify the files because Henry was no longer governor by the time the stack of parole certificates reached his office.

As a result, Coffee and the governor’s legal staff have decided Fallin will need to go back and sign all of these parole certificates because they were not received by the secretary of state until after Fallin took office.

The governor’s legal counsel, Judy Copeland, is in the process of reviewing all of the files. Copeland’s staff has processed 40 of the 218 files in question, without finding any disagreement with Henry’s actions.

“This is a bureaucratic nightmare,” Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said this week. “That certification is only a formality.”

Johnson questioned what would happen if Fallin decided someone’s parole should not be signed, contrary to Henry’s action.

Johnson also blamed Coffee, former head of the Senate, for refusing year after year to allow a hearing on reform bill intended to reduce the governor’s role in paroling inmates and speed up the process.

Coffee declined to talk to Oklahoma Watch about the certification mix-up, saying “I am no longer an elected official.”

For the past several years, Johnson has authored legislation to diminish the governor’s role in the parole process because Henry took so much time to approve paroles.

When first elected, Henry was approving paroles within 14 days. The average when he left the governor’s office was 81 days.

Henry said it was not unusual for him to stay up late reviewing applications. The last weekend before leaving office, Henry’s staff forwarded parole cases to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board at 3 a.m.

Copeland said Governor Fallin appreciates the fact that Henry’s staff cleaned up his parole backlog, although problems persist in the parole process.

State Parole Board officials say they believe Oklahoma is the only state that requires the governor to weigh in on every parole recommendation.

Several states require the governor’s approval only for those incarcerated for violent crimes. Generally, those convicted on nonviolent crimes are reviewed by a parole board, which determines who will be released.

State law requires that the governor must act on paroles within 30 days of receiving a request from the parole board. However, there is no penalty for failing to meet that deadline.

House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, is sponsoring a bill addressing several corrections problems. One of the provisions says that if the governor fails to act on a parole within 30 days, the inmate has to be released.

Alex Weintz, Fallin’s communications director, said the governor intends to do everything she can to meet the 30-day deadline.

Oklahoma’s prisons are bursting with inmates at a time when the state leads the nation in its rate of female incarceration and is in the top-five in male incarcerations.

Every day that an inmate’s release is stalled, it costs taxpayers more money, Johnson said. The average annual cost of locking up inmates is about $20,000.

Gov. Henry was also noted for attaching more requirements on paroles after the board had approved them.

Parole board member Lynnell Harkins said Henry went so far as to require random urinalysis for some inmates when they had already been recommended for parole by the board.

Weintz said the governor’s office does not intend to “micromanage” the parole board’s business and will not make it a practice to attach additional stipulations on paroles.

Steele’s prison reform bill will be heard by a House committee within the next few weeks. House approval of the speaker’s bill appears likely, but the measure will have to pass the Senate and be approved by the governor before reforms could take place.