September 29, 2011

New Parole Procedure Hits Snag

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OKLAHOMA CITY – A portion of a highly touted criminal justice reform measure that was passed last legislative session is unconstitutional, according to an opinion released Tuesday by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, sought the opinion on changes made regarding the granting of parole.

The changes were made in House Bill 2131, which was sponsored by House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee.

The new law says that if the governor does not act within 30 days on favorable parole recommendations made by the Pardon and Parole Board regarding low-risk, nonviolent offenders, the parole is deemed granted.

The opinion says that portion of the law is unconstitutional because the Oklahoma Constitution grants the governor the power to determine parole and does not place a time limit on exercising that power.

The law was not scheduled to go into effect until Nov. 1, said Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin.

“It was something that leadership at the state Capitol felt like to cover our bases, this was important to do before we started to implement the passage,” Brecheen said.

Brecheen is the author of Senate Joint Resolution 25, which would have sent the issue to a vote of the people. Constitutional changes require such a vote.

The measure did not get a hearing in the House last session, but it is still alive.

The opinion is advisory only, said Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for Pruitt. It is not binding on state officials until action in district court.

Fallin called the ruling a setback for the legislation that she supported and signed.

“We will see what the Legislature does with that,” she said of the Brecheen bill. “I do support it going to a vote of the people.”

The opinion did not disturb other portions of the new law.

The measure increased the number of offenders eligible for electronic monitoring and community sentencing programs. It also established minimum requirements for members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

The measure had widespread support, Steele said.

“The bill’s focal point is increasing community sentencing for low-risk offenders so prison overcrowding can be lessened and more resources can be directed to dangerous, high-risk offenders,” he said.

“The bill’s provision limiting the governor’s role in the parole process also had strong support and was vetted thoroughly by attorneys and others in the legislative and executive branches before it was approved.”

The opinion will be taken under advisement, Steele said.