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Oklahoma DA: Pardons Board Violated State's Mandatory Sentencing Guidelines

If a clemency board chooses to sidestep mandatory sentencing guidelines and recommend a prisoner's early release, it possesses that maneuverability. And, as an Oklahoma D.A. recently illustrated, prosecutors hate being outmaneuvered.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater accused the state's Pardon and Parole Board in August 2012 of deliberately violating mandatory sentencing statutes and secretly expediting the release of prisoners who have not yet served 85% of their sentences. But Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said the board actually commuted sentences and did nothing malicious.

Prater accused the five-member Pardon and Parole Board of operating a secret docket of offenders—a list of 50 prisoners, Prater claimed, who have been given illegal preferential treatment by the board since 2010—convicted of murder, child molestation and other crimes that, by state law, require prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentences. Some of those prisoners were serving life sentences; at least one was serving life without parole: and some have since been released. Prater also said the board violated Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act and that he might file charges against the members.

"The effect of the board's illegal actions requires the executive branch to take immediate steps... to reverse the decisions made subsequent to the board's invalid actions," Prater wrote in a letter to Terry Jenks, the Pardon and Parole Board's executive director. "Obviously, this will include taking (prisoners) who have been released back into custody."

Top aides for Fallin responded to Prater's accusations that the prosecutor had confused parole hearings with the board's consideration of commutation for offenders. The board doesn't list the names of offenders being considered for commutation; it does, however, announce their names during monthly meetings. If three of the board's members vote to consider a prisoner for commutation, only then are the names listed, and prosecutors and victims' family members who signed up for notification are given notice 20 days in advance.

If the board ultimately recommends commutation, the governor then decides whether to grant a prisoner's early release.

"The governor doesn't think there's any malicious intent in anything the Pardon and Parole Board was doing," said Alex Weintz, Fallin's communications director.

Regarding past recommendations for commutation, Denise Northrop, Fallin's chief of staff, said that the governor wouldn't "look backward" or question the board's legal authority. Of course, Northrop was also sure to communicate that the governor is nontheless tough on crime.

"Some of the (recommendations) that came to us we rejected," she said.

Source: The Oklahoman,

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