To find more about all of the state questions on the ballot in November, see our 2012 State Questions page.
State Question 762, on the ballot this November, would make paroles granted by the Pardon and Parole Board for non-violent offenders no longer require additional approval by the governor. Even though SQ 762 would take away some of her powers and responsibilities, Governor Fallin has endorsed it. It’s also supported by outgoing House Speaker Kris Steele, a leading champion of criminal justice reforms in Oklahoma.
There are compelling reasons to make this change. Oklahoma is the only state in the nation where the governor must personally approve every parole. Partly as a result, Oklahoma’s parole rates have tended to be far lower than most other states, as seen in the above graph from a 2007 audit of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
With many other tasks taking precedence, Oklahoma governors have sometimes neglected their duty to make timely parole decisions. By law, the governor is supposed to make a decision in 30 days, but for much of his term, Governor Henry took an average of 81 days. Governor Fallin has reduced the backlog, but she is approving a much lower percentage of paroles (51 percent, compared to 85 percent approved by Governor Henry).
The result can be seen in a couple of dramatic facts. It’s common knowledge that Oklahoma incarcerates more than most states. We’re 1st in the nation for incarcerating women and 4th for men. But you may be surprised to learn that we are actually below the national average for percentage under correctional control. In 2007, 1 in 42 Oklahomans were in state and federal jail, prison, or community supervision, compared to 1 in 31 nationally. This shows that we’re not making more convictions than other states, but we’re keeping a much greater percentage of offenders locked up.
So why should we allow more paroles?
1) Parole reduces crime
Our obsession with imprisonment is unfortunate, because well-managed probation and parole systems have been shown to actually reduce crime and recidivism. Parole offers those released from prison an intermediate period to rebuild their lives, where they can be monitored and assisted to find a job, obtain a degree, and stay out of trouble. The alternative is releasing offenders directly to the streets unsupervised after long prison terms. Parole can be problematic if offenders are too easily locked up due to technical violations of the terms of parole, as opposed to committing additional crimes. However, much of the recent justice reinvestment reforms were intended to bolster the system with better monitoring and treatment programs and avoid sending people back to prison for technical violations.
2) Parole is cost-effective
Monitoring parolees can be done at a small fraction of the cost of incarceration. The average costs for keeping an offender imprisoned in Oklahoma is about $45 per day, compared to less than $2 per day for someone on parole. A study by the Northpointe Institute for Public Management estimated that increasing parole rates could save Oklahoma taxpayers as much $53 million per year. We can then put those savings into efforts to further reduce crime – the whole premise of justice reinvestment – such as more police presence, mental health, drug treatment, and community-building.
3) Critics confuse the issue
The broad, bipartisan support for SQ 762 had made it seem like a done deal. Yet controversy has emerged in recent weeks, primarily due to a dispute between Oklahoma district attorneys and the State Pardon and Parole Board. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater accused the board of violating the Open Meeting Act by not listing ahead of time that they would consider commuting sentences for “85 percent offenders,” who have committed serious violent crimes and thus by Oklahoma law are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. The parole board said it was an issue of unintentionally unclear wording, and they adopted several reforms recommended by Governor Fallin to fix it. The Oklahoma District Attorneys Association then voted unanimously to oppose State Question 762, citing concerns related to the dispute over 85 percent offenders.
However, 85 percent offenders have nothing to do with SQ 762. These offenders were convicted of serious violent crimes – the State Question only changes the procedure for less serious, non-violent crimes. Combining the two issues is misleading, and it’s a demonstration of how we got into this mess in the first place. Threatened by stories of violent criminals, voters have been persuaded to support harsh, costly laws for non-violent, less serious offenders. Today, more Oklahomans are recognizing the need to escape this cycle and be smarter on crime, but the status quo has powerful defenders.
We can’t afford to continue down this path. Passing SQ 762 would help improve public safety while making more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. For these reasons, and for the sake of families deprived of mothers and fathers who are locked away in prison for non-violent crimes, it’s time for a change.