Oklahoma is well known for diehard Sooner football fans, winds sweeping down the plains, and being the prison capital of the world. What a line-up. But that last dubious distinction is changing before our hard-hearted visage as hundreds of inmates have been released as part of the largest commutation of sentences in U.S. history.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt addressed nearly 500 freshly freed former inmates: “This is the first day of the rest of your life … Let’s make it so you guys do not come back here again.”
The release of non-violent offenders is part of a new initiative designed to plummet recidivism rates, hike rehabilitation success, and give corrections officers and other prison employees a much-needed break.
But here’s the rarity in this day and age: OK lawmakers on both sides of the fence are ecstatic. Earlier this year, Stitt signed a bill that reduced convictions for low-level drug and property crimes to misdemeanors, which was then was applied retroactively.
Risky or Righteous?
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, headed by executive director Steven Bickley, re-examined 814 separate cases and sent recommendations to the governor for review. Stitt commuted all sentences, but not before ensuring each former inmate was given a driver’s license or state identification card and attended a transition fair with local social services and potential employers. The Pardons and Parole Board stated in a jubilant news release that more than 200 people from non-profits and state agencies were on hand at the fair to answer questions and steer inmates to the outside help they’d soon need.
Here are the stats on the mass commutation:
- Average age 39.7 years old.
- 75% male.
- 25% female.
- Most had served three years.
- Released an average of 1.34 years early.
- Commutations account for 1,931 years combined incarceration.
- Early release saves Oklahoma $12 million.
As Bickley stated in a media release about the unanimous vote to set hundreds of prisoners free, “With this vote, we are fulfilling the will of Oklahomans. However, from day one, the goal of this project has been more than just the release of low level, non-violent offenders, but the successful reentry of these individuals back into society.”
Criminal Justice Reform Is Alive and Well
Oklahoma’s grace toward inmates who may not have met a threshold of lengthy imprisonment is a program this nation and other states should emulate. President Trump has made inroads, pardoning offenders who seem to have been held to a higher “teach them a lesson standard” than most. Alice Marie Johnson is one such fortunate woman.
Johnson was freed by Trump after serving 21 years of a life sentence for, get ready for this, possession and money laundering. Her tale of woe is indicative of a rush to judgment, perhaps racism, perhaps heavy-handed justice. But righting the wrong – no matter how long it takes – is always the right thing to do.
Maybe Oklahoma wanted to wash away the stigma of being the prison capital of the world. Or perhaps overcrowded facilities were taking a toll on the humanity of those working in prisons across the state. Then again, saving the state nearly $12 million might have played a role.
Regardless, Oklahoma and the newly freed inmates deserve well wishes for what they are all about to experience.