BY SUE HINTON
The Pardon and Parole Board has a problem: It cannot get its work done. The temporary solution has been to cut back on reviewing commutations and reducing hearings for applicants seeking parole.
The result is fewer individuals being released from Oklahoma’s overcrowded and COVID-ridden prisons.
There is a better, and cheaper, option – a full-time board that has more time to complete its constitutionally prescribed duties. Now is the time for the Legislature, perhaps in tandem with the governor, to set this change in motion.
A task force to study the issue would be a good place to start.
The state could save money by turning Pardon and Parole Board membership into full-time positions. The five board members are considered one-third time employees and are paid about $35,000 per year. Even with the added cost of benefits, the total increase in salaries should be no more than $500,000 yearly to have a full-time board. Of course, other expenses would rise as more staff, such as parole investigators, is added to consider more applicants.
Nevertheless, saving money on a part-time Pardon and Parole Board is costing the Department of Corrections money. Oklahoma is maintaining a large population of parole-ready prisoners who remain locked up far longer than they need to be.
Should a full-time parole board result in even 200 additional paroles or commutation in a year, the savings would amount to $4 million for each year those inmates stayed out of prison. We could close prisons and bring our incarceration rate closer to what it used to be, closer to the national norm.
Voters have spoken and government officials have listened to the public’s demand to reduce mass incarceration in Oklahoma. Since Gov. Kevin Stitt took office in January 2019, the number of inmates in state prisons and jails has dropped by thousands. The governor deserves credit for leading the way, but he is not the only factor.
The part-time Pardon and Parole Board has worked overtime to review between 400 and 600 written applications each month from inmates seeking paroles or commutations [reduced sentences]. Non-violent offenders who qualify for parole can present their case to the PPB each year. If approved, the applicant is released under parole supervision. If denied, the nonviolent offender can apply again next year.
For violent offenders, the parole process is more complex. Inmates serving sentences for crimes defined as violent face a two-stage process instituted in 1999. The first stage is a “jacket review,” where the parole board reviews written files that contain information from the prosecution and the prisoner. If the board sees merit in the application, the prisoner is then scheduled for a video interview, called a Stage 2 hearing.
Before the Stage 2 hearing, victims and prosecutors are asked to speak or write about any objections they might have to the offender being considered for parole.
At the video interview, parole board members question the inmate about the offense and the offender’s readiness for reduced supervision under parole. If at least three of the five members of the board are satisfied, they can recommend to the governor that the inmate be paroled. Only after the governor signs the parole will the offender be released.
If denied at Stage 1 or Stage 2, offenders defined as violent cannot apply for parole again for three years, instead of one year. This change occurred in 1999 because growth in incarceration numbers was placing a heavy burden on the part-time Pardon and Parole Board.
In fact, much has changed in 20 years and most changes have worked to the disadvantage of parole applicants. Throughout the 1900s, parole applicants spoke in person to the parole board yearly.
Today few interviews are granted, and they are conducted by video. Nonviolent offenders seeking parole are never interviewed. Their success depends entirely on their ability to make a persuasive argument on paper.
Violent offenders rarely get the chance to be interviewed. Only 5% to 20% of applicants make it past the Stage 1 “jacket review,” where they must make their case in writing.
Parole applicants who are serving time for a violent crime – and who are among the fortunate few granted a video interview – are recommended for parole between 75% and 85% of the time. The chance to make their case in an interview gives the parole applicant a great advantage, which most inmates never get. When parole board members see the warm face of a person in front of them, instead of words on a cold piece of paper, they respond differently.
Why is it that the Pardon and Parole Board rarely talks to people seeking parole?
The answer is simple: time.
The parole board meets three days a month. Most of the first day and part of the next two days are spent on jacket reviews. Board members are expected to review the files before the meeting and make their decision. At the meeting they cast their votes at the rate of two applicants per minute, so they can process 400 to 600 files in four to six hours. There is no discussion, rarely a comment.
In contrast, interviews take about five to seven minutes per inmate, so board members can talk to 10 inmates per hour, at the most.
Oklahoma has about 23,000 inmates in prisons or jails at this time. Hundreds apply for parole each month. These numbers are compounded by the fact that the Pardon and Parole Board also considers all inmates seeking commutations, or reduced sentences.
That burden has grown significantly in the past few years because of changes in the law that have reduced simple drug-possession charges and certain property crimes to misdemeanors. Inmates now serving sentences much longer than the current limits can ask that their sentences be shortened. But they must apply to the parole board for that to happen. There are prisoners in Oklahoma serving life sentences, even life without parole, for nonviolent drug offenses.
Commutations are always a two-stage process, whether the original crimes are defined as violent or nonviolent. The first is the jacket review. If applicants get a positive vote in the jacket review, they are then questioned by the board in a video interview. Much like parole applicants, commutation applicants are typically denied in the jacket review with only 15% to 25% getting enough votes for a Stage 2 interview.
With the onset of mass incarceration in the 1990s and the prison population growing ever since, the work of the part-time Pardon and Parole Board has increased dramatically, with no end in sight.
The wrong solution has been applied in the past, to reduce options for inmates, and that solution is being applied now. The parole board is facing a backlog of about 1,500 commutation applications. The decision has been made to consider no more than 150 applicants each month. At that rate, the PPB would require 10 months just to catch up. But, of course, they cannot catch up because more commutation applications come in every day.
Oklahoma prison inmates can file a commutation request every three years. However, because of the backlog, a commutation may have to wait in line for a year or longer before being placed on a docket. Once on the docket, the vast majority are denied. Now inmates cannot file again for three years from the date of denial, effectively reducing commutation opportunities to once every four or five years.
What is the effect? More inmates are spending a longer time in prison. Oklahoma has one of the nation’s oldest prison populations.
Despite recent changes, Oklahoma still has one of the highest incarceration rates, partly because of the parole and commutation bottleneck. But it does not have to be that way. The savings of a full-time Pardon and Parole Board would go beyond dollars and cents. It would create more fairness and justice.
A full-time board could conduct more video interviews, giving many applicants a better chance to make their case by speaking rather than writing.
Written applications put an even heavier burden on the already disadvantaged, the poor and minorities. These are people who have had the least access to good schools and little family tutoring at home. That contributes to Oklahoma having the highest incarceration rate in the nation for Blacks.
Eighty percent of inmates lack a high school diploma or GED. When they dropped out of school in the ninth or 10th grade, most were not making A’s in English. Mostly they were not paying attention when their teachers talked about techniques for persuasive arguments. In this, systemic racism takes its toll yet again.
Once in prison, a person’s skill at persuasive writing becomes essential to early release through parole or commutation. Here some inmates fail at even the most basic level, penmanship. Most inmates lack access to computers to fill out the paperwork. Many cannot type. So they must submit handwritten documents. When our part-time board members review 400 to 600 files per month, they might be able to spend five minutes on each jacket. There is no time to decipher partially legible documents.
Even worse, about 40% of prisoners have an education level below the eighth grade. Many do not read well. Some cannot read at all. They struggle when filling out forms that must be completed to apply for parole or commutation. It often is beyond their ability.
More opportunities to speak to the parole board would give these inmates a better chance. The barrier of written communication often can be overcome by talking – if we had a full-time parole board with the time to listen.
We have better ways to spend tax dollars than locking up prisoners who would benefit from parole supervision. A full-time Pardon and Parole Board would save money and improve many lives.
Sue Hinton lives in Norman.