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Oklahoma Commutations Largest Mass Release in U.S. History

by Kevin Bliss

On November 1, 2019, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt approved commutation for 527 prisoners. The Oklahoma commutation is the largest mass commutation in the history of the nation. The citizens of Oklahoma voted yes on State Question 780 in 2016, which decriminalized low-level, nonviolent property crimes and certain drug possessions, and in 2019 Stitt signed a bill making that act apply retroactively.

Former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele initiated the push to reduce the state’s prison population. It was estimated it would save the state $12 million a year.

“Historically, many in Oklahoma have seen incarceration and excessive penalties as politically expedient,” Steele said. “We are breaking away from that model as we understand that not only does it make a situation worse, but it also costs a fortune.”

Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate of the nation. This alternative sentencing measure is just one step in Stitt’s priority to change that. The bill gave authorization to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to accelerate a one-stage commutation hearing for those prisoners who had no additional ineligible sentences, were not guilty of serious misconduct while incarcerated, or whose commutation was not opposed by prosecutor or victim.

The board began in August to compile a list of prisoners who met the criteria for a commutation hearing. They identified 527 prisoners and on November 1 Governor Stitt approved them all. Three days later, the first 462 were released. As many 3,500 prisoners could be affected by the bill. Baylee Lakey, spokeswoman for Governor Stitt, said, “The Governor applauds the Pardon and Parole Board’s dedication to fulfill the will of the people through the ... docket, giving hundreds of nonviolent, low-level offenders an opportunity at a second chance.”

Board Director Steve Bickley said, “A lot of work has been done to make sure the spirit of the law is being implemented. We’re not blanketly saying everybody should get out of prison. We’re trying to do what’s right and fair.”

Governor Stitt made an appearance at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility in Taft, Oklahoma, to greet around 70 women granted early release. “It’s the great thing that the governor is doing so we can be home with our kids. Been out of her life for three years. But she’s my hope. She’s never given up on me,” said Lana Lemus, one of those released. 



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