Photo by The Oklahoman 

The systemic problems contributing to Oklahoma’s bloated prison population are complex and multifaceted. There is no simple solution. But Oklahoma’s Pardon & Parole Board made headway this month by agreeing to review the cases of 23 inmates, all women, for commutation. Commutation lessens the severity of punishment to correct unjust or excessive sentences. It modifies punishment — but doesn’t erase convictions or guarantee release. It exists for situations like what is occurring in Oklahoma, in which people are incarcerated under sentences no longer supported by law.

A broad coalition of stakeholders, coordinated by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, initiated this campaign by targeting three specific groups of inmates:

1. Inmates serving time for drug possession who would not be incarcerated under newly-adopted sentencing laws.
2. Inmates serving time for distribution who would not be incarcerated under newly-adopted sentencing laws.
3. Mothers convicted of enabling child abuse who, in many cases, received harsher sentences than the abuser. Many of the
women were also abused at the hands of the same perpetrator.

Once that list was established, those remaining had to meet two additional criteria.

1. The candidate must have no criminal history of violence.
2. The candidate must have a definitive and stable support network upon release.

University of Tulsa Law students scrutinized hundreds of cases and ultimately recommended 49 inmates who qualified. The Pardon & Parole Board then approved the first stage of commutation for 23 of those cases which now must undergo further review. As a final check, the Governor must decide whether to accept, decline, or modify the Pardon & Parole Board’s recommendations.

The successful launch of this campaign is a small but significant step toward comprehensive sentencing reform. It demands a rigorous review of public safety concerns while fostering the environment former inmates will need to succeed.

The commutation process typically takes about six months. During that time, the campaign will focus on the remaining candidates to prepare for the next Pardon & Parole commutation hearing.