Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has released a letter blasting the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board for secretly operating a docket that allows ineligible inmates to come up for parole.
Prater wrote to Terry Jenks, Executive Director of the parole board, after being contacted by the family of a man who was killed in a car accident by drunken driver Maelene Chambers. Chambers was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in March of 2008. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison, with 10 years to be served and 15 years suspended.
The family of the victim was notified through VINE (the Victim Information and Notification Everyday program) that Chambers would be up for parole in July of this year, although Oklahoma law requires she serve at least 85 percent of her sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
Prater thought there was some sort of mistake, so he began investigating just why Chambers was up for parole four years early. In the letter, he said he discovered members of the parole board had a practice of placing inmates on a docket called "pre-docket investigation" or "PDI." Prater said a member of the board can move to place an inmate on PDI. If the board votes to put the inmate on PDI, the inmate is approved for early parole consideration.
Prater said the board has never notified the District Attorney's office about placing unqualified inmates on the PDI docket. As a result, Prater is calling on the pardon and parole board to invalidate the actions.
After learning of Prater's discovery, Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele also contacted the parole board. He said he was "disappointed" upon learning about the PDI, and asked that Chambers be removed from the parole docket. He issued a statement saying, "our criminal justice system has zero tolerance for even the appearance of playing fast and loose with sentencing laws."
Communications Director Alex Weintz with the Office of Governor Mary Fallin released the following statement regarding a letter sent Wednesday morning from District Attorney David Prater objecting to several of the practices of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board:
"The Pardon and Parole Board is an independent, constitutional, five-member body. Members of the Board are appointed, three by the Governor, one by the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, and one by the presiding Judge of the Court Criminal Appeals. The Board is charged with making clemency recommendations to the governor concerning convicted adult felons.
"When reviewing these recommendations, Governor Fallin scrutinizes each case carefully and individually. The governor's priority is to ensure justice is served, everyone is treated equally and fairly, and those who are a danger to our communities stay behind bars. As of now, the governor has approved clemency for only 51% of the inmates who have been recommended for parole by the Board.
"Governor Fallin believes that openness and transparency are essential when dealing with the Pardon and Parole Board and the clemency process. This morning, the governor's office received a letter from District Attorney David Prater listing a number of complaints against the Pardon and Parole Board, including possible violations of the Open Meetings Act. The governor takes Mr. Prater's complaints seriously; she is carefully reviewing his letter and consulting with her legal staff as well as Pardon and Parole Board members. She believes it is important for the Board to be open and transparent on all accounts. Where the potential release of inmates is concerned, transparency is especially important for both public safety reasons and to ensure the victims of crimes and their families are afforded input and fair treatment. To ensure the Board is meeting a high standard of transparency and openness, the governor has asked the Board to review its practice of posting meeting notifications and to increase the level of information it makes available to the public prior to those meetings.
"In addition to the issue of openness and transparency, Mr. Prater has made a number of other complaints regarding the operations of the Pardon and Parole Board. One of these complaints deals with the Board's practice of considering early commutation of offenders before 85% of their prison sentence has been served. The governor is reviewing Mr. Prater's arguments thoroughly and working to ensure the Board is following both the letter and the spirit of the law. Out of an abundance of caution, however, the governor has asked and the Board has agreed to place a moratorium on the practice of considering docket modifications during meetings. Furthermore, the governor has asked and the Board has agreed to request an attorney general's opinion regarding the 85% rule and the Board's ability to recommend early release.
"The governor applauds Mr. Prater for his commitment to transparency and to law and order. She will continue to investigate his allegations and ensure the law is obeyed and justice is properly served." – Alex Weintz, Communications Director, Office of Governor Mary Fallin.
The State of Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board released the following statement in response to Prater's letter:
"The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has received Mr. Prater's letter outlining his concerns with regards to the Open Meetings Act. The Board is reviewing Mr. Prater's concerns carefully. The Board believes that transparency and openness are essential when dealing with the clemency process to ensure every interested party is dealt with fairly. The Board carefully reviews and considers each offender on an individual basis.
"All Board meetings are conducted according to the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act in an open, public forum and the required notice(s) are posted with the Oklahoma Secretary of State.
"While the Board believes it has both statutory and Constitutional authority to bring offenders up for early consideration, to ensure the Board process remains open and transparent, the Chairperson will place a moratorium on the early consideration process. In addition, the Agency will request an Attorney General's Opinion regarding the 85% law and the authority to place offenders on a docket for early consideration."
Attorney General Scott Pruitt has also issued a statment regarding Prater's accusations:
"Our office has been made aware of the allegations brought forward by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. Indeed, these allegations are of great concern because 85 percent crimes are some of the most heinous crimes committed against Oklahomans. The Legislature established a clear requirement so that victims and their families can be assured that an offender will serve no less than 85 percent of their sentence.
"Any practice, policy or action taken by any board or commission to mitigate or change the time served is wrong—and inconsistent with statute.
"I will do everything in my power as Attorney General to ensure that victims have confidence in our legal system and that justice is carried out to the fullest extent."
News 9's Adrianna Iwasinski is following this story and will have more on News 9 at 4, 5 and 6.