Things That Matter

Over 400 Oklahoma Inmates Were Released In Largest Commutation In History And Their Stories Are Powerful

On Monday, more than 400 Oklahoma inmates were released from prison following the nation’s largest single-day mass commutation in history. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board unanimously voted to commute the sentences of 527 state inmates. Yesterday, 462 of them were able to walk free while 65 are being held on detainer. 

Governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican, former mortgage company CEO, and criminal justice reform advocate, has pledged to step away from outdated policies. Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration (after Louisiana) in the United States, according to the Sentencing Project.

The freed inmates are all low-level or non-violent offenders who may not have been commuted without Oklahoma voters’ approving criminal justice proposals in 2016. 

Oklahoma governor greets freed inmates at a woman’s prison.

Stitt said he believes the commutation will give many residents a “second chance” at a news conference. 

“This marks an important milestone of Oklahomans wanting to focus the state’s efforts on helping those with nonviolent offenses achieve better outcomes in life,” Stitt said, according to NBC News. “The historic commutation of individuals in Oklahoma’s prisons is only possible because our state agencies, elected officials, and partnering organizations put aside politics and worked together to move the needle.”

The governor attended Dr. Eddie Warrior Center, an all-women’s prison, where now-former inmates were emotionally embracing family and friends. 

“We really want you to have a successful future,” Stitt told the crowd. “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 state plans on going beyond just releasing inmates.

“With this vote, we are fulfilling the will of Oklahomans,” Steve Bickley, executive director of the parole board, said in a statement Friday. “However, from Day One, the goal of this project has been more than just the release of low-level, nonviolent offenders, but the successful re-entry of these individuals back into society.”

The state government is not just releasing the inmates, but also making sure they receive a proper government-issued driver’s license or ID card. These are essential items that allow inmates to reintegrate back into society, making jobs and housing more attainable. 

“It has been a moving experience to see our state and community partners help connect our inmates with the resources they need for a successful reentry and I thank Governor Stitt, DOC Director Scott Crow, and the many local nonprofits, churches, and job creators that stepped up to ensure these inmates have every opportunity for success,” Bickley said. 

Voters usher in a new era of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.

 In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved a ballot measure by a 16 percentage point margin to decrease prison rolls, and to downgrade drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. 

“Basically, in Oklahoma, we’re just warehousing people in prison, and we’re not trying to rehabilitate anybody because of budget constraints,” Bobby Cleveland, a Republican state representative and chairman of the Public Safety Committee, told the New York Times

Stitt, who was elected in 2018, also signed a bill this year that retroactively adjusted sentences for those who had their charges downgraded. This paved the way for the mass commutation to happen expediently. 

The United States has the highest incarceration in the world.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world. According to the Sentencing Project, the 500 percent increase in incarceration rates over the last 40 years is due to policy not an increase in crime. In fact, crime, especially violent crimes have significantly decreased, dropping by 51 percent to 71 percent between 1993 and 2018, Pew Research notes

“Since the official beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S. skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017,” the Sentencing Project claims. “Today, there are more people behind bars for a drug offense than the number of people who were in prison or jail for any crime in 1980. The number of people sentenced to prison for property and violent crimes has also increased even during periods when crime rates have declined.”

Unnecessarily high incarceration rates have negative effects on various communities. Moreover, they specifically harm communities of color who are often targets of law enforcement despite numerous studies that show races and ethnicities commit crimes at roughly the same rates. 

While people of color are 37 percent of the United States population, they make up 67 percent of the prison population. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated as white men while Latinx men are twice as likely — both groups face harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as their white peers. 

Oklahoma, a state where Trump swept every county in 2016, illuminates how criminal justice reform has become a bipartisan issue — simply too many people are affected for the issue to go unchallenged. 

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