Focus on the Pardon and Parole Board (Capitol Update)

There is a heated controversy fueled primarily by Oklahoma district attorneys over parole and commutation recommendations being made by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. The board has five members, three of whom are appointed by the governor. The other two are appointed by the Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. There are certain education and experience requirements for appointment to the board.

The current controversy has been brewing for a while but gained momentum over the vote by the board to commute the death sentence of Julius Jones. Gov. Stitt later commuted the sentence to life without parole. That vote followed an earlier controversy, still being investigated, in a case in which a person recommended for parole on drug and other charges is accused of murdering several people only three weeks after being released. The case was one of a historic number of paroles being considered after the legislature made retroactive the provisions State Question 780 and established a streamlined parole process for drug cases.

In addition to the criticism of board actions, some members have been accused of bias and conflicts of interest and unsuccessfully subjected to lawsuits to prevent them from participating. It appears from comments made by one former board member that, due to the volume of cases being considered, the board failed to note detrimental information about the background of the parolee who is charged in the murders. If so, this was a tragic error.

Everyone who makes decisions in criminal cases — from judges to prosecutors and defense attorneys to the parole board and the governor — bears the weight of the decisions they are making. They live in apprehension that a wrong decision could cost damage, injury, or life. It goes with the territory. No one in the system is infallible. 

Probably the most difficult thing to do is let go of a case once you have met your responsibility. Some district attorneys are not very good at that. They are reluctant to recognize there is an executive authority, the Pardon and Parole Board and the governor, with the responsibility to review and make decisions about the cases after they have left the court system. When that reluctance is acted upon, it turns what should be an impartial, dispassionate effort toward a fair outcome into a tug-of-war over control. 

Ninety to ninety-five percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining — a deal struck between a prosecutor and the accused — and routinely approved by a judge. Everything from the personalities of the parties involved to the strength of the case and the attitude of the prosecutor toward the offense charged, or the accused, is reflected in the deal that is made. It’s understandable that prosecutors want theirs to be the last word. 

A few cases are actually decided by judges and juries, but the fact is that in nearly all cases in Oklahoma, prosecutors determine the sentence. To say the plea bargains they make are beyond review once they leave the courtroom and join thousands of other cases in an overcrowded corrections system is to deny the responsibilities and powers of the Pardon and Parole Board and the governor. In a sense that’s what this controversy is all about.  


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

One thought on “Focus on the Pardon and Parole Board (Capitol Update)

  1. Well said. As one who is opposed to the death penalty, I have not always agreed with their decisions, I do respect the difficulty of their task and appreciate your thoughtful wowrds.

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