In a flurry of signatures Friday, Oklahoma moved one step closer to shucking its dubious distinction as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the United States. On Monday, 527 people serving low-level drug and nonviolent offenses will go free in what Oklahoma lawmakers are calling the largest single-day commutation in both state and U.S. history.
The commutation is a success for criminal justice reform efforts in a state that has a long history of harsh sentencing practices and high incarceration rates. It's also evidence of the GOP-dominated Legislature's willingness to move closer in line with the majority of voters who favor a less punitive approach. The historic commutations come amid nationwide efforts to reduce punishment of low-level crimes and move the U.S. prison system in a more rehabilitative — or at least less punitive — direction.
Criminal justice reform advocates such as Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, agreed that the commutation news signaled a change but cautioned that the road ahead will be a long one.
"From the 30,000-foot view, the criminal justice landscape is light-years ahead of where it was three or four years ago," Kiesel said. "It would have been impossible before State Question 780 passed in Oklahoma; that signaled to lawmakers there was an appetite for reform."
In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780 and 781, a pair of ballot measures that reclassified certain simple drug possession and nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors instead of felonies and mandated that the cost savings would go to drug treatment and rehabilitation services. In January, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers voted to make the 2016 laws apply retroactively.
The commutations are just a fraction of the state's 26,334-person state prison population, but they mean a second chance for the hundreds of incarcerated people who will be freed as a result.
Rose Ortiz of Gainesville, Texas, will be among those outside the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud on Monday waiting to welcome a loved one home. Ortiz's daughter, Calista, will be released and reunited with her husband and five kids — including a baby whom she gave birth to in prison.
Ortiz said that she had doubts at first when she heard her daughter would be eligible for early release. Calista had tried before to get a reduction in her seven-year sentence for drug possession even as she helped other women successfully file for their own early-release petitions.
"When you hear that, you wonder, 'Is this really going to happen?' " Ortiz said.
At a Friday news conference announcing that the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had unanimously voted to recommend the sentences of 527 state inmates be commuted, first-term Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt declared that "today, we're implementing the will of the people."
"They've got a lot of paperwork to do," Stitt said of the Secretary of State's office. "I've got to sign 450 of these this afternoon." Once the parole board makes a recommendation to commute a sentence, it then passes to the governor for final approval.
Stitt, who campaigned on reducing the prison population, noted that on Monday night, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections will have "about 2,000 empty beds in our system." The figure prompted an attendee at the news conference to call out, "Amen!"
On Friday, the Department of Corrections for the first time in state history held a "re-entry" fair behind prison walls. Prisoners being released Monday, along with those scheduled for release in the next six months, were connected with services such as housing and counseling support. In some cases, prisoners were able to secure state ID cards or driver's licenses before their release.