This story was updated March 13 to reflect the Pardon and Parole Board’s vote.
In one fell swoop, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Wednesday approved 73 inmates for a new type of parole intended to help alleviate the state’s overcrowded prisons.
The parole process, approved by the Legislature last year, could be a first test of how much a board composed mostly of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s appointees will embrace criminal justice reform efforts. Stitt, who appointed three of the five board members after taking office in January, has made reducing the prison population a priority for his administration.
House Bill 2286 established the streamlined parole process. Administrative parole cuts out two parts of standard parole: the pre-review investigation and the appearance before the board. It’s not automatic, however. The board still must approve the inmates each month. Typically, the Pardon and Parole Board approves parole for about a fifth or less of applicants.
“If you meet the five statutory requirements, we skip that part,” Justin Wolf, general counsel for the board, said of the difference between standard and administrative parole.
Inmates who meet the requirements are automatically eligible. They must have served one-quarter to one-third of their sentences, depending on the date of their crime, and be “substantially compliant” with Department of Corrections case plans. They also must not receive a protest from a victim or prosecutor and not have misconduct infractions for at least six months – longer depending on the severity of the misconduct. Only nonviolent offenders are eligible. Regardless of the administrative parole outcome, inmates remain eligible for traditional parole consideration.
“This isn’t ever going to put you in a worse position than you were before,” Wolf said.
The law took effect Nov. 1. Because of victim and district attorney notification requirements, Wednesday’s meeting was the first time inmates were able to be considered for the new parole process. Typically the parole board takes a separate vote on each inmate who applied for early release. On Wednesday, the board took one vote to grant streamlined parole to all 73 who were eligible.
According to a House of Representatives fiscal analysis, the law should save $16.7 million a year when fully implemented because of lower incarceration costs.
The Department of Corrections in December sent a list of 138 potential administrative parolees. The list was whittled down to 73. The five-member board voted unanimously to place them on parole, provided none had disqualifying conduct between the time the final list was created and the vote.
“Initial estimates were much higher than this,” Wolf said.
The board approved parole for one-third of nonviolent offenders in fiscal year 2018. That’s an increase from 27 percent two years before, but dramatically less than in 2008, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group. It’s unclear how much of a dent the releases will make in the prison population in the long term or the board’s enthusiasm for the new approach.
“People are going to say they’re not serving enough time — I understand that,” board member Allen McCall, a retired district judge, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Something had to be done.”
McCall added: “I much prefer this to mass commutation.”
Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, is taking a wait-and-see approach before he gauges the new parole’s effectiveness.
“I think the biggest issue with the administrative parole part of the process is that it began in November of last year. … Those individuals who came into the system before November 1 don’t have access to the remedy of administrative parole,” he said.
Wolfe disputed this interpretation and pointed to the list as proof that retroactivity isn’t an issue. He said inmates’ time served before the law went into effect would count toward eligibility.
However, both acknowledged there could be unforeseen hurdles in implementing the new process.
The initial group of inmates’ crimes include failure to register as a sex offender, grand larceny, drug possession and burglary. The longest-serving inmates have been in for two decades. Several inmates have been in for less than a year.
Shade said he has been told that the inmates selected represent “the best of the best” in terms of their behavior. “They have shown the top compliance.”