A Look at State Question 762 on November’s Ballot
A state question going before voters in November would streamline the parole process.
State Question 762 removes the Governor from decisions about parole for non-violent offenders.
One week a month, Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board meets to make decisions on the fate of state inmates.
The five members of the board spend four days listening to the parole eligible inmates and their family members before making their decision.
But they also listen to victims and prosecutors protesting the release of the prisoners.
Newly elected Chairman Marc Drier says it’s not something they take lightly.
“We spend easily 40, 50 hours in preparation for the board meeting and that’s in addition to the week we spend here. We start early in the morning. We go late into the evening.”
In 2011, the parole board recommended the governor parole 1,200 inmates.
Of that number, 58% were considered non-violent offenders.
And, in a review by the Tulsa World, the Governor only approved 51% of the cases.
With prison capacity at about 98% lawmakers asked for an audit of the Department of Corrections.
One of the recommendations was a change to the constitution to remove the Governor from the parole process only for non-violent offenders.
House Speaker Kris Steele pushed for State Question 762 going before voters after the audit found this could save the state $40 million over the next four years.
“By the time the governor or her staff and not particularly this governor but this has been true throughout history actually reviews the docket and the file it can take months and that person is still incarcerated.”
Robert Lee Rainey served for 12 years on a citizen oversight board of the Department of Corrections and now chairs the group Citizens for a Safer Oklahoma supporting the state question.
Calling the audit numbers too conservative, Rainey says he believes the savings could be more like $9.7 million to $53 million in the first year alone.
“When you’re clicking along and anywhere from $12 to $22 a day per offender for three hots and a cot, and they’ve never committed a violent crime, they do not pose any risk to public safety.”
State question 762 does have its opponents.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater originally supported removing the governor from the parole process.
But, recently he has opened an investigation on accusations the pardon and parole board violated the open meetings act and might have recommended parole for inmates who weren’t eligible yet.
Prater now says the governor serves as needed oversight.
“It’s my understanding they don’t even have a true risk assessment tool that they are able to use to consider a prisoner at this time, so if they aren’t doing it right now, they’re certainly not going to do it with someone out of the process, the governor out of the process.”
One of the more conservative members of the state house was one of just eight representatives voting against what was then Senate Joint Resolution 25.
Representative Jason Murphey of Guthrie says it’s essential for the governor to be involved.
“When you take the governor out of process like this the people of Oklahoma have no one to hold accountable, the members of the pardon and parole board are unelected and thus when they make a bad decision as I think they have in the past the people can’t hold them to account.”
While supporters of 762 say no other state has the governor involved in paroles for non-violent offenders, Murphey says in this case Oklahoma is the one doing it right.
He says there are already IT solutions to expedite the case management system which will save money, but keep the governor in the process.
“I think that system will make a faster turnaround so you will have the best of both worlds. Perhaps the governor can quickly rule on pardon and parole’s recommendations, but can do so in a much more expedient manner.”
While the board member’s aren’t elected, Chairman Drier says two members are appointed by the courts and three members are appointed by the governor and need Senate confirmation.
“The governor is in support of this constitutional question as well and would reduce her workload and her exposure to all kinds of things that are in her way of running the state.”
Supporters of State Question 762 also point to recent legislation which has increased the experience and expertise required to become a member of the pardon and parole board.