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Oklahoma approves largest single-day commutation in U.S. history

527 state inmates set free, largest prison exodus ever People applaud Friday after the Pardon and Parole Board read the names of 527 Oklahoma inmates recommended for commutation at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City.

November 3, 2019

In a flurry of signatures Friday afternoon, Oklahoma moved one step closer to shucking its distinction as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the United States. On Monday afternoon, 527 people serving low-level drug and nonviolent offenses will go free in what Oklahoma lawmakers are calling the largest single-day commutation in both state and U.S. history.

The commutation is a success for criminal justice reform efforts in a state that has a long history of harsh sentencing practices and high incarceration rates. It’s also evidence of the Republican-dominated legislature’s willingness to move closer in line with the majority of voters who favor a less punitive approach. The historic commutations come amid nationwide efforts to reduce the punishment of low-level crimes and move the U.S. prison system in a more rehabilitative — or at least less punitive — direction.

Criminal justice reform advocates like Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, agreed that the commutation news signaled a change but cautioned that the road ahead will be a long one.

“From the 30,000-foot view, the criminal justice landscape is light-years ahead of where it was three or four years ago,” Kiesel told The Washington Post. “It would have been impossible before State Question 780 passed in Oklahoma; that signaled to lawmakers there was an appetite for reform.”

In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780 and 781, a pair of ballot measures that reclassified certain simple drug possession and nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors instead of felonies and mandated that the cost savings would go to drug treatment and rehabilitation services. In January, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers voted to make the 2016 laws apply retroactively.

The commutations are just a fraction of the state’s 26,334-person state prison population, but they mean a second chance for the hundreds of incarcerated people who will be freed as a result.

Rose Ortiz of Gainesville, Tex., will be among those outside the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Okla., on Monday waiting to welcome a loved one home. Ortiz’s daughter, Calista, will be released and reunited with her husband and five kids — including a baby whom she gave birth to in prison.

Ortiz she had doubts at first when she heard her daughter would be eligible for early release. Calista had tried before to get a reduction in her roughly seven-year sentence for drug possession even as she helped other women successfully file for their own early-release petitions.

“When you hear that, you wonder, ‘Is this really going to happen?’” Ortiz said.

At a Friday news conference announcing that the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had unanimously voted to recommend the sentences of 527 state inmates be commuted, first-term Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt declared that “today, we’re implementing the will of the people.”

“They’ve got a lot of paperwork to do,” Stitt said of the secretary of state’s office. “I’ve got to sign 450 of these this afternoon.” Once the parole board makes a recommendation to commute a sentence, it then passes to the governor for final approval.

Stitt, who campaigned on reducing the prison population, noted that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections anticipated it will have “about 2,000 empty beds in our system” by the end of the year. The figure prompted an attendee at the news conference to call out, “Amen!”

Hand delivering 524 signed commutations to be processed in time for the release of hundreds of non-violent, low-level inmates across our state on Monday. Thank you to the dedicated Oklahomans who made this historic step towards criminal justice reform possible! 

On Friday, the first day the retroactive law took effect, 814 prisoners applied for commutation consideration, according to the state Pardon and Parole Board. The state said the mass commutations will save taxpayers an estimated $11.9 million based on costs projected if the eligible prisoners served their full sentences.

Stitt said that in addition to releasing prisoners whose sentences were no longer consistent with their since-reclassified crimes, the Department of Corrections for the first time in state history held a “reentry” fair behind prison walls. Prisoners being released Monday, along with those scheduled for release in the next six months, were connected with services such as housing and counseling support. In some cases, prisoners were able to secure state ID cards or driver’s licenses before their release; though crucial, such documentation can be difficult to obtain for people returning from prison. The effort, Stitt said, was coordinated by a mix of state, local, nonprofit and faith groups.

Eddie Warrior Correctional Center inmates received their drivers license or state ID cards today from the Muskogee County Tag Office thanks to an ODOC project. Many of them, shown here, will be discharging Monday after HB 1269 made State Question 780 retroactive. Congratulations, ladies!