Okla. commutation approvals decline dramatically during COVID-19 pandemic

The Pardon and Parole Board substantially reduced the number and rate of commutation application approvals in 2020.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board has significantly slowed Stage I commutation approvals compared to 2019 levels, according to a new report issued by FWD.us, a bipartisan organization working to reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

The report, which draws from public records and Department of Corrections data, shows that approvals for commutation applications from January through November of 2020 were significantly cut back — even as COVID-19 put people in Oklahoma’s prisons at increased risk of infection and death.

During this time period, the Board lowered its monthly commutation docket and reduced the number and rate at which applications were moved forward. In 2020, the Board approved 33% fewer Stage I commutation applications compared to 2019, despite considering over 1,000 more applications. The overall Stage I approval rate fell from 46% to 19%.

“Commutation applicants are being denied in higher numbers and at a higher rate in 2020 than they were in 2019, regardless of offense type or sentence length. But what’s driving the steep decline in approvals is the denial of commutation for applicants with nonviolent offenses,” said Shanna Gong, Oklahoma State Director for FWD.us. “It’s a concerning departure from the Board’s actions in 2019.”

Prior to 2019, Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board rarely granted commutations for excessive sentences. In 2019, more applications were filed, heard, and approved than ever before.

With new Board members appointed by Governor Stitt, the Board processed 1,830 commutation applications, 846 (46%) of which passed Stage I (excluding retroactive House Bill 1269 cases). This helped move Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons from 112% capacity at the beginning of 2019 to 106% capacity at the end of the year.

Despite this progress, Oklahoma still has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the country, and like many states, has faced serious challenges in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons where social distancing is nearly impossible.
As of January 5, the test positivity rate in Oklahoma prisons is over 25% and 43 incarcerated people have died from complications possibly related to COVID-19.

“Oklahoma can and should continue to use commutation to safely reduce its prison population — especially now,” said Gong. “Experts have cited lowering prison and jail populations as a crucial part of reducing the spread of COVID-19. As cases continue to rise across the state, it doesn’t make sense to continue putting Oklahomans in danger by slowing down opportunities for early release.”

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