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Oklahoma Prisons Releasing Hundreds Of Non-Violent Offenders

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt hand delivers hundreds of commutation certificates on Friday, November 1, 2019.

The state of Oklahoma plans to release hundreds of prisoners Monday after their sentences were reduced by the state's Pardon and Parole Board. 462 state prisoners could be sent home, which would represent the nation's largest single day commutation.

Three years ago, Oklahoma voters chose to make felony drug possession and certain felony property crimes misdemeanors. But people convicted of those crimes before the law changed didn't reap the benefits until now. This year, Oklahoma's legislature decided to give those prisoners who didn't qualify a chance to get their sentences commuted and be released early.

Oklahoma State Representative Jon Echols co-sponsored the bill that made this possible. He says this is a special moment in Oklahoma government.

"These are real lives, real people with real families and with real friends, says Echols. "And they get to go home."

Echols says there was a lot of doubt that the Department of Corrections - or DOC - would be able to identify prisoners eligible for early release.

"There were times when we've tried to do this - that dealing with DOC and getting those names, we were told, wasn't going to be possible," says Echols. "Yet you heard today through the new director of DOC we were able to get those names ahead of what was scheduled."

Oklahoma politicians say this is the largest single-day mass commutation in U.S. history. But for Oklahomans, these commutations represent something more. This conservative, tough-on-crime state has a new political will to pursue criminal justice reform. It's a will Oklahoma voters first communicated to their representatives with their 2016 vote that overwhelmingly called for more lenient punishments for nonviolent drug crime. That vote made today's commutations possible and convinced lawmakers, including the state's new governor, to take on criminal justice reform.

Republican Governor Kevin Stitt was an early supporter of efforts to get these prisoners released. His office has been working closely with state agencies on their commutations. And he's promised to approve shortened sentences for the people who are recommended by the Pardon and Parole Board. After the parole board meetings, Stitt said this is only the beginning.

"This group of nonviolent offenders are just a part of this story, says Stitt. "By the end of this year, we're anticipating we'll have about 2,000 empty beds in our system."

The governor says those people will walk out with access to social services that will help them successfully re-enter society thanks to dozens of non-profits and state agencies that met with prisoners during the state's first-ever prisoner transition fairs.

The first prisoners are expected to be released later today.

Quinton Chandler worked at StateImpact Oklahoma from January 2018 to August 2021, focusing on criminal justice reporting.
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