9 Investigates: Early Release, Public Danger

Monday, November 10th 2014, 11:05 pm
By: News 9

They're locked up in Oklahoma prisons to pay for their crimes, but are prisoners in our state actually serving all of their time? The answer in most cases is a resounding no.

The law requires violent criminals to spend 85 percent of their crimes behind bars, but for the rest, it's all based on points.

"What is happening now doesn't seem to be working," said a victim of a rapist this summer, who didn't want to reveal her identity, referring to early release credits for Oklahoma prisoners.

They're also called "good time" credits. Prisoners get them for all kinds of things, like completing educational courses, substance abuse programs or meeting certain goals, like creating a resume. However, some alleged the Department of Corrections (DOC) is abusing the program.

"I think it's a good law, but you've got to be very careful what you're doing, that you're not letting out the bad guys," said State Representative Bobby Cleveland.

That's exactly what some said the law is doing.

"The prisoners are getting no points marked against them, so that DOC can get them out quicker," said a prison guard's wife in a letter to News 9, who also wanted to remain anonymous. "This is not right. They are letting out hardened prisoners that have no remorse for their conduct."

We asked for a list of every prisoner released in just one week, earlier this year. It was a snapshot of the overall prison release system, but a telling one. Our calculations showed 80 percent of the 250 prisoners released that week spent less than half of their sentences behind bars. Fifteen percent of them stayed in prison for less than a quarter of their sentences and only one did 100 percent of their prison time.

"Every prison you find is just a little different than the other one," said Rep. Cleveland.

Rep. Cleveland has been in almost every prison in our state, studying our system and looking for a way to fix what he said is clearly broken. Cleveland said the state's increasing prison population is the biggest problem and while the early release program may sound bad, he said it's not, if it's run properly. And it is the law. He said he believes Oklahoma's "85 percent" minimum law keeps the most dangerous criminals in prison where they need to be, and that we shouldn't worry about the other ones who get out early. But he did question a tactic the new DOC Director is using, giving prisoners their credits back after losing them for bad behavior.

"Good time credits that was restored to some of them, seemed to be, was a surprise to me," said Rep. Cleveland. "I couldn't figure out how some of them could get that many good time credits given to them. In some cases it was pretty outrageous."

Rep. Cleveland and several other lawmakers questioned prison officials during an interim study last month, where a DOC representative admitted the earned credits program is indeed a tool to ease prisoner overcrowding.

"I understand your concern with the earned credits program," said Terry Watkins with the Department of Corrections. "The difficulty is that was established by the legislature because they were coming in the door faster than they were going out the door"

For the rape victim, who said she refuses to be a lifelong victim, the system was broken the moment criminals started just "doing time" and not doing something useful or meaningful with the time they serve.

"I wondered what it would take to rehabilitate this man so he wouldn't get right out of prison and start doing the same thing," the victim said.

Rep. Cleveland said Oklahoma needs to put more emphasis on drug courts and rehabilitation to fix the system.