Oklahoma’s parole system has been broken for years. In most states, parole is the most common form of release from prison; it allows a person to serve a portion of their sentence under community supervision to provide accountability while they readjust to society. But despite now having the highest incarceration rate in the country, at 990 inmates per 100,000 residents, we have among the lowest rates of people being supervised on parole. There were 6,218 people in prison for nonviolent offenses sitting in Oklahoma prisons who had passed their first parole date at the end of 2017.

Members of Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board are currently required to have experience in the criminal justice field, which has limited the board to mostly judges and law enforcement officers, who tend to have punitive attitudes. To begin to address this, SB 1221 was introduced to require that all Board members receive training on best practices for reforming criminal behavior and that two members have experience in mental health services, substance abuse services, or social work. 

After quietly passing the Senate, however, SB 1221 was amended on the House floor to include a process to allow juvenile offenders as young as 13 years old to be sentenced to life without parole. The thinking behind the amended SB 1221 is severely misguided, moving against a strong national current that has seen many states ban life without parole for juveniles.

The Supreme Court has steadily imposed new restrictions on juvenile sentencing

Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided several cases that limited the punishments that can be imposed on juveniles convicted of serious crimes. After banning the death sentence for juveniles, the Court banned life without parole for juveniles except for those convicted of homicide. The Court then ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. This doesn’t mean that juveniles can’t be sentenced to life without parole, but it does mean that judges are required to take the defendant’s age into account when sentencing them.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s rulings, 28 states changed the way they deal with juveniles convicted of homicide. The 24 states that previously required mandatory life without parole repealed those laws and instituted mandatory minimums ranging from 15 to 40 years. As the map below shows, four of the states that border Oklahoma – Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas – have banned juvenile life without parole. The remaining two – Missouri and New Mexico – have not banned the practice, but as of 2017 had no people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole in their prisons.

Source: The Sentencing Project

Amendments to SB 1221 reflect thinking that is opposite of the original bill

The amendments offered by House Speaker Pro Tem Harold Wright were carefully worded to get around the Supreme Court’s rulings. It reserves juvenile life without parole for first degree murder, requires that the defendant undergo a psychological evaluation, and forces the judge to consider the defendant’s age, maturity, brain development, substance abuse, and other characteristics.

Representatives critical of the amendments also pointed out that the SB 1221 would lower the standard of evidence required for a judge to impose a life without parole sentence from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “the weight of evidence,” a lower standard to achieve.

While the process set up in SB 1221 complies with recent Supreme Court rulings that require judges to take into account a juvenile offender’s age and maturity before sentencing them to life in prison without parole, it would take Oklahoma in the opposite direction from most other states. As our neighbors move to ban juvenile life without parole completely, SB 1221 would ensure that the sentence remains available for zealous prosecutors to seek lifelong imprisonment for teenagers.

Juvenile life without parole is problematic for many reasons. Committing serious crimes at a young age is tied closely to being abused and witnessing violence, which are factors beyond a young person’s control. As with every other part of the justice system, black defendants are much more likely to receive life imprisonment as juveniles compared to white defendants. Youth sentenced to life without parole are imprisoned before they are even given the privileges that mark adulthood in the U.S., like voting, serving on a jury, or buying tobacco or alcohol. At these young ages, the brain has not fully developed, which raises serious questions about whether it is ever just or practical to sentence a juvenile to life in prison.

Moreover, banning life without parole does not necessarily mean that all juveniles convicted of serious crimes would eventually get out of prison. It merely means that they would be granted the opportunity for a review before the parole board, at which point the board could take into account the person’s rehabilitation and maturation.

Gov. Fallin should reject SB 1221 if it contains provisions to guarantee a path to juvenile life without parole

The Pardon and Parole Board certainly needs mental health and substance abuse professionals to offer perspectives on changing the criminal behavior of the applicants they consider. Oklahoma’s broken parole system was opened up greatly when the Governor signed HB 2286 last week, and it would benefit from perspectives outside of the judges and law enforcement personnel that have dominated the board.

Unfortunately, the amendments introduced during House debate poison that bill with outdated thinking that would preserve a path to impose life imprisonment for juveniles, despite the Supreme Court’s steady march toward limiting that practice. Oklahoma would be much better served by following the example of our neighbors and banning juvenile life without parole altogether.