Today, Oklahoma is freeing 527 inmates who were incarcerated for minor drug and nonviolent offenses– the largest single day of commutation in U.S. history.
Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed off on freeing the inmates last Friday, granting the historic commutations backed by voters. Three years ago, Oklahoma voters approved two ballot measures, State Question 780 and 781. This action lowered low-level crimes, such as simple drug possession and nonviolent property crimes under $1,000, to misdemeanors instead of felonies. The rationale for doing this boils down to dollars and cents. The state factored in all of the money it will save on incarceration, and how those dollars could be redirected to drug treatment and rehabilitation services, according to the Star Tribune.
In January, a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers voted to apply the 2016 laws retroactively, paving the way for today’s commutation.
At a Friday press conference, Stitt announced that the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had unanimously recommended commuting the sentences of the 527 inmates – and that he had signed off on it. Stitt, a first-term governor who campaigned on prison reform, said: “Today, we’re implementing the will of the people.”
“They’ve got a lot of paperwork to do,” Stitt said referring to the Secretary of State’s office, according to the Star Tribune. “I’ve got to sign 450 of these this afternoon.” Once the parole board makes a recommendation to commute a sentence, it then passes to the governor for final approval.
Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the United States and has long engaged in tough sentencing for low-level offenders. But when voters passed the two ballot measures, it was a good indicator to the Republican-dominated legislature that residents wanted a less harsh approach.
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Oklahoma branch, said the commutations are a step in the right direction although more work needs to be done.
“From the 30,000-foot view, the criminal justice landscape is light-years ahead of where it was three or four years ago,” Kiesel told the newspaper. “It would have been impossible before State Question 780 passed in Oklahoma; that signaled to lawmakers there was an appetite for reform.”