Pardon and Parole Board turmoil is a reaction to progress in criminal justice reform (Capitol Update)

The turmoil occurring among members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is an extension of the larger conflict among many of those who administer the criminal justice system in Oklahoma and those who are trying to change it. Despite Oklahoma’s being at or near the top among the states in incarcerating people, those opposing seem to think that, for the most part, the system is working just fine. But the system is not working just fine, and those who suffer the consequences are victims, offenders, families, and taxpayers.

The Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force in its final report in February 2017 found that in Oklahoma: 

Seventy-five percent of people admitted to prison were sentenced for nonviolent crimes; over half of individuals sentenced to prison for nonviolent offenses have one or no prior felony convictions, and 80 percent have no history of violent crimes. Research demonstrates that incarceration is no more effective at reducing recidivism than alternatives to prison and can actually increase the recidivism rates of lower-level individuals.

Despite the risk of increasing recidivism for lower-level, non-violent offenses, Oklahoma uses prison over alternatives more often than other states and has focused many of its prison beds on those sentenced for nonviolent crimes with limited criminal history.

Sentences for nonviolent offenders in Oklahoma are longer compared to other states, and release options are underutilized and/or delayed. Despite research demonstrating that longer prison terms do not reduce recidivism more than shorter prison terms, less than 10 percent of the individuals released from prison are paroled, and drug and property offenders are released on average nine months past their parole eligibility date. 

In November 2016, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly passed by a more than 16 percent margin State Question 780 that changed simple drug possession and certain theft-related offenses from felony to a misdemeanor. The law went into effect July 1, 2017. Since then, the battle has been joined. Those leading the charge against SQ780 have continued the battle against most other reform measures.

The Legislature read the will of the people correctly and passed House Bill 1269 in 2019, making SQ780 retroactive. This moved the Pardon and Parole Board onto the battleground. The board, together with Gov. Stitt, has brought the number of people incarcerated on simple drug possession charges down dramatically. Their rapid release has brought our incarceration rates down, at least temporarily.

When there is progress, there is usually a reaction. What we see on the Pardon and Parole Board is part of the reaction to the nascent criminal justice reform movement to bring Oklahoma justice toward a system of rational sentencing without the harmful over reliance on incarceration.


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.

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