Gov. Mary Fallin appointed three of the five Pardon and Parole Board members, but on average, she agrees with their parole decisions about half of the time, records show.
After the August and September hearings, she approved 40 percent to 42 percent of the board’s recommended paroles. For the three months prior, she approved about 55 percent of the cases.
Alex Weintz, Fallin’s communications director, declined to elaborate on the specific criteria the governor considers when evaluating paroles, pardons and commutations for prisoners recommended by the board.
“Governor Fallin treats each case on an individual basis and thoroughly reviews the individual circumstances surrounding each one,” Weintz said via email. “It is the policy of this administration not to comment further on internal deliberations where the pardon and parole process is concerned.”
In an April article discussing possible parole system reforms, Weintz told the Tulsa World: “She’s appointing people to the Pardon and Parole Board so we can utilize their judgment and recommendations. In nonviolent cases, the governor feels she should be able to trust her judgment in the board members she appointed.”
Last week, Fallin denied commutation to Larry Yarbrough, a Kingfisher County drug dealer serving a life-without-parole sentence. The board had voted 3-2 in August to commute Yarbrough’s sentence.
Fallin’s office released a statement on Yarbrough’s case, saying the governor continues “to value their input and appreciate(s) their passion for pursuing justice.”
Oklahoma remains the only state in the U.S. where the governor has final say on all pardons and paroles.
House Bill 2131, which became law in May, included a provision that if the governor did not act within 30 days on recommendations made by the Pardon and Parole Board in cases of low-risk, nonviolent offenders, the parole would be considered granted.
The bill was approved the same month that a report by the Northpointe Institute of Public Management assessed Oklahoma’s process as backlogged and in need of reform to aid the state’s overcrowded prisons.
State prisons are operating at about 99 percent capacity, and the Department of Corrections has endured several years of deep budget cuts, despite increasing numbers of inmates.
According to the Northpointe report, about 11 percent of Oklahoma inmates up for parole are approved for release, costing taxpayers an average of $80 million per year. Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board officials disputed that figure and said data kept by the agency show parole approval ranging from 31 percent to 55 percent during the last 10 years.
In recent months, Fallin’s office cleared a large backlog of parole cases pending when Gov. Brad Henry left office and is now reviewing all cases within 30 days. Under Henry, the process had slowed to as many as 90 to 180 days.
However, in about 35 percent of cases, inmates are simply waiving their right to a parole hearing, records show.
Often, inmates who are close to finishing their sentences choose to simply wait it out rather than be released with stipulations or supervision required by parole, board Director Terry Jenks told the Tulsa World when the Northpointe report was released.
Marc Dreyer, one of Fallin’s three Pardon and Parole Board appointees, said that when the board reviews cases, there’s never any discussion of trying to anticipate the governor’s decision.
At each month’s meeting, board members receive a brief report on the prior month’s decisions and totals showing the governor’s final actions. Pardon and Parole Board staff keep a detailed case-by-case report, but the board members don’t review it, Dreyer said.
“I prefer not to look at what she does afterward,” he said. “According to the constitution, clemency is her responsibility. I don’t want to try to anticipate what she’s going to do on any case, I just try to be true to the things that are why she asked me to serve on the board.”
Each month, Dreyer forwards a memo to the governor’s office letting her know of any extenuating circumstances mentioned during an offender’s interview with the board that led members to vote in favor of parole, pardon or commutation.
It’s simply a way to provide the governor some understanding of why the board may have voted a certain way, Dreyer said, adding there’s not always a representative from Fallin’s office at each day of the board’s three- and four-day monthly hearings.
Dreyer said he contacted Fallin’s office once to ask if there were types of cases in which he was voting to grant parole that the governor disagreed with his vote, as one of her appointees. No one from the governor’s office gave him any feedback or tried to direct him in any way, he said.
“Each side needs to take action individually and not worry about the other’s decision – and let the system work the way the people set it up,” Dreyer said.