The governor initially endorsed the measure, but withdrew her support after a controversy erupted between the state Pardon and Parole Board and the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association (ODAA).
In a prepared statement, Fallin said she remains committed to the “general concept” of removing the governor from the pardon and parole process in order to streamline the procedure for criminals with no history of violence.
“However, recent events have led me to believe now is not the right time for the governor’s office to be removed from its oversight of the Pardon and Parole Board,” she said.
Fallin’s comment was in reference to the allegation leveled by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater that the parole board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. Prater accused board members of not posting on their public meeting agenda an item involving commutations for “85-percent offenders” who have committed serious violent crimes and are required by state law to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
Board members since have adopted several reforms recommended by Fallin to correct the problem surrounding the Open Meetings Act, while also becoming more transparent to the public and more cooperative with the DAs’ association.
Despite the moves made by the parole board, the ODAA voted unanimously to oppose SQ 762, citing concerns related to the dispute. Ironically, violent offenders have nothing to do with the proposed measure, since their cases would continue to come under the governor’s control.
If approved by voters on Nov. 6, SQ 762 would give the parole board sole authority to grant paroles for prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes.Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn, ODAA president, said removing the governor from parole decisions “would be a terrible mistake.”
“There would be absolutely no accountability for those who are tasked with releasing criminals from our prisons,” Mashburn said. “It is imperative to keep the governor in this process.”
Brady Henderson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said parole board members are held to high standards of conduct, with or without gubernatorial oversight.
“They are subject to state and federal laws, including the Open Meetings Act,” he said. “They are appointed by those who are elected, so there is a system of accountability.”
In her statement, Fallin expressed concern about the proposal’s wording.
“It appears State Question 762 would define nonviolent offenders only by their current offense and would not mandate the consideration of past violent behavior,” she said. “Since taking office, I have denied parole for 437 offenders, who would be considered nonviolent under the terms of State Question 762, keeping them off our streets and out of our communities.”
Under the current system, the parole board makes parole recommendations, which are then approved or denied by the governor.
Fallin is at odds on the issue with Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a fellow Republican.
In May 2011, Fallin signed House Bill 2131, which contained a provision removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders. However, a subsequent attorney general’s opinion found a state question would be needed to make the necessary reform.
Steele has been passionate in his support of SQ 762, claiming that its passage would create a more effective criminal justice system.
“This was good policy when the governor signed it into law last year, and it remains so today,” he said. “No other state requires the governor to review every nonviolent parole, because no evidence exists that doing so actually increases public safety.”
Steele described the proposed reform as a “nationally accepted best practice that can serve as a foundation for further improvements to the parole process.”
Supporters of 762 argue that the time Fallin spends on parole recommendations could be better spent on more pressing issues, such as education and economic development.
Oklahoma is the only state in the nation requiring gubernatorial approval of each parole.
Oklahoma’s parole rates are lower than most other states, including Texas. A 2010 report prepared by the Northpointe Institute for Public Management showed Oklahoma’s parole rate at 11 percent based on the current system. The cost to taxpayers for the low parole rate was estimated at $192.5 million every two years. Some 26,000 convicts currently serve time in the state’s prison system.
“By improving the [parole] board and the way it operates, combined cost avoidance and cost savings of between $9.7 million and $53 million could be achieved after accounting for substantial reinvestment in community supervision and programming,” the report stated.
In 2010, the state’s prison system was at 97.8 percent capacity, having doubled in population since the mid- 1990s.
Overcrowding also concerns Henderson.
“Oklahoma is No. 1 in the incarceration of women and No. 4 for men,” he said. “We put more people in prison than most other states. We need a step-down process before a prisoner is paroled that would include community corrections and a job training program.”
Last year, Fallin granted 18 percent of the paroles that were sent to her desk, he said.
The ACLU endorses SQ 762 for a variety of reasons, Henderson said.
“First, the governor must personally approve all paroles and that takes time to figure out if a parole is reasonable,” he said.
“Second, the governor has to be sensitive to political pressure because she is an elected official. If she appears soft on crime, that could hurt her. In essence, it’s more roadblocks.”
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