Prisoners Could Have Sentences Commuted Under Criminal Justice Reform

Tuesday, August 21st 2018, 12:15 am

We are starting to see the fruits of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. A couple dozen women who otherwise expected to spend years in prison may now be out early next year. 

When voters passed State Questions 780 and 781 in 2016, reducing penalties for nonviolent crimes, they sent a strong message that they didn’t want prisons filled with people who are not dangerous. 

Now, we are starting to see some change.

This summer, University of Tulsa Law Students pored over hundreds of case files for people who may be impacted by the passage of state questions 780 and 781. 

They came up with about 50 people who could be eligible for a commuted sentence under current law. 

“These are people who likely would not be in prison today or if they were in prison they’d be with a sentence that’s far shorter than the sentence they have now.” John Estus with the non-profit group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform said.

The Pardon and parole board approved the first stage of commutation for 23 non-violent women. 

Commuting a sentence usually takes around six months.

“Almost all of them are in prison for a drug offense of some kind.  Most of them are in prison for drug possession and a lot of them have prison sentences in excess of a decade for simple drug possession.  Ten, fifteen, twenty.  In one case even forty years for drug possession.” Estus said,  “And again today that doesn’t even carry a prison sentence in most cases.”

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is also working on ways to make sure those who do have their sentences commuted don’t re-offend. 

Many of them come from rural communities with few drug rehab resources.

“We are going to be working very hard to reach out to those communities and find faith leaders and addiction leaders and others who want to help receive these people.” Estus said. “We don’t want these people to be commuted and then go home and have no support and fall back into their old habits.”

The legislature is also discussing making state question 781 retroactive.  That could lead to reduced or commuted sentences for hundreds of inmates.