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Oklahoma's Parole Board revises commutation eligibility requirements

Commutation recipient Kara Chapman poses for a photo at her Comanche County home.
Keaton Ross
/
Oklahoma Watch
Commutation recipient Kara Chapman poses for a photo at her Comanche County home.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously on Monday to implement a waiting period for state prisoners to argue their sentence is unjust or excessive.

The administrative rules change, which must receive final approval from the Legislature to take effect, requires prisoners to serve the lesser of five years in prison or one-third of their sentence to become eligible for commutation. Current guidelines allow nearly all state prisoners to seek commutation, but they must wait at least three years to reapply if the board rejects their application.

Pardon and Parole Board staff loosened eligibility criteria following a Jan. 8 public comment hearing where dozens of speakers raised concerns.

Absent from the final proposal are four prerequisites that would have required most prisoners to receive a favorable recommendation from a trial official or the governor before applying for commutation. The three-year waiting period for reapplication after receiving an unfavorable recommendation remains in effect, though a new provision allows the board to vote to bar reapplication for five years if a prisoner receives two consecutive adverse decisions.

“We went back and took a look at things and we think we found a good middle road to address all of the concerns of our constituencies,” board chairman Edward Konieczny said. “Thank you to the public for being here and offering your comments.”

Morgan Hale, the managing attorney for Project Commutation, said the organization is thrilled with the final version of the rules change. She said the minimum-time-served requirement would not affect eligibility for the vast majority of prisoners the Tulsa-based nonprofit represents.

“The board initially scheduled 20 minutes for public comment, but it lasted more than three-and-a-half hours,” Hale said. “I think that shows Oklahomans really were not going to sit around and let them do whatever, and they really did care to come and advocate for those inside.”

Commutation recipient Kara Chapman traveled 200 miles round trip to address the board on Jan. 8. She said she was pleased with the outcome and is encouraged that prisoners in a similar situation will have an opportunity for early release.

“When you’re in prison, a lot of times it feels like you don’t have a voice,” Chapman said. “So to come out there and have people like the Parole Board listen and take what I have to say as valuable, that is an amazing feeling.”

District attorneys have commonly scrutinized Oklahoma’s commutation process, designed to correct an unjust or excessive sentence, after commutation recipient Lawrence Paul Anderson murdered three people in Chickasha in February 2021. An Oklahoma County grand jury investigation released in May 2022 found that Anderson was improperly placed on the commutation docket in August 2019 after the board rejected a previous application of his two months earlier.

In a summary statement filed with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office in December, Pardon and Parole Board counsel Kyle Counts wrote that commutation eligibility requirements would promote fairness, transparency, efficiency and consistency in the board’s procedures. In a December interview, executive director Tom Bates said the board is regularly inundated with applications that have little or no merit.

“Can sentences be excessive?” Bates said. “Yes. We’re just trying to put some guardrails and determinations around that.”


This article first appeared on Oklahoma Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch.
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