Gov. Stitt’s State of the State address signaled a serious desire to make criminal justice reform a signature piece of his agenda. He’s made positive comments regarding several bipartisan bills filed this legislative session aimed at stemming Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. However, there are a few reforms which the Governor could enact immediately through executive action. If these executive reforms are made in conjunction with investments from the Legislature, they will produce significant long-term savings.
Several of these reforms are related to last year’s landmark parole bill, HB 2286. The law created a process called “administrative parole,” which will allow some nonviolent offenders to be released on parole without having to go through a parole hearing process.
This single parole reform represents a massive cost savings for the state. Administrative parole is estimated to reduce the prison population by 3,750 with an annual cost savings of $16.7 million when fully implemented. Unfortunately, building the systems needed to implement administrative parole has been slow and complicated by the process of changing board members with a new administration. By appointing reform-minded parole board members; creating more efficient, timely dockets; and continuing his push to increase parole board funding, Gov. Stitt could help realize the potential of administrative parole and lower the cost of incarceration in Oklahoma.
A Reform-Minded Parole Board Could Reverse Negative Trends
Oklahoma’s parole system is deeply broken. Parole releases declined 77 percent between 2008 and 2017. Administrative parole was intended to alleviate this problem, but whether recent reforms are effective will depend on the composition of the new parole board. This new board will manage both the timeline and processes necessary to implement administrative parole, and the board’s voting habits will also be a significant factor in potential reform.
The past three years prove that altering the parole board’s makeup can have a real impact. Between 2016 and 2018, Oklahoma’s favorable parole board votes for nonviolent offenders increased from 27 percent to 33 percent, largely due to the appointment of a single prominent justice reform advocate. Kris Steele was appointed to the board in 2017, and he favored parole for nonviolent offenders in 50 percent of cases. Steele’s swing vote on the five person board changed the outcomes for many nonviolent offenders up for parole.
Governor Stitt now has the power to appoint three new board members. In addition to granting parole more often, appointing more reform-minded members could also help improve inmates’ trust in the system by making it run more smoothly and fairly.
More Timely Dockets Will Increase The System’s Efficiency
The parole board’s ability to process parole, pardon, and commutation applications was strained relative to the processing times in neighboring states even before HB 2286. Pardon applications are routinely delayed by one to three months, and the processing time for completed commutation applications has doubled to two months due to budget constraints.
With the stroke of a pen, Governor Stitt could sign an executive order mandating a quicker turnaround time for each of these parole board functions. However, these new responsibilities should be made in conjunction with greater appropriations from the Legislature to handle the influx of parolees created by HB 2286. In FY 2018, the parole board considered 2,982 people. This spring, the first administrative parole docket will begin. In the first month, this new docket will add more than 100 inmates to the board’s list for consideration. Those up for administrative parole will simply get an up or down vote without a typical parole hearing process. This new streamlined system will still require some of the board’s limited resources to protect victims’ rights and hear objections from law enforcement.
Increased Parole Funding Will Produce Greater Savings Over Time
In FY 2015, the Department of Corrections spent 86 percent of its budget on prison facilities and only 6 percent on probation and parole. With so little funding, the Pardon and Parole Board is dependent on inmates waiving their own parole hearings just to have a manageable workload. Oklahoma is one of the few states in the US to even allow offenders to waive their parole hearings. If the 4,800 people who waive parole annually in Oklahoma started applying for hearings, the board would be unable to handle the capacity at current funding levels.
Governor Stitt has proposed approximately $12 million in additional funding from the Legislature this session for prison diversion programs and to expedite pardon and parole requests for eligible Oklahoma inmates. This front-end investment should lead to real savings for taxpayers over time due to lower incarceration costs. Better funding should also strengthen public safety. Parole officers in this state average around 100 cases per officer, much higher than the average of 70 noted in studies of best parole practices. Hiring more officers and lowering caseloads can reduce recidivism by allowing officers to spend more time on higher-risk offenders.
This Legislative Session Represents A Historic Opportunity For Bipartisan Justice Reform
Since 2016, a broad coalition has developed around criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Millions in tax dollars will be saved and thousands of people released home to their families if policymakers get this right. Governor Stitt has a historic opportunity to use his executive authority to help create a parole process that begins restoring justice to Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.