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Stroke of genius

Executive action on parole reform could save Oklahoma millions

Gov. Stitt’s State of the State address signaled a serious desire to make criminal justice reform a signature piece of his agenda. He’s made positive comments regarding several bipartisan bills filed this legislative session aimed at stemming Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. However, there are a few reforms which the Governor could enact immediately through executive action. If these executive reforms are made in conjunction with investments from the Legislature, they will produce significant long-term savings.

Several of these reforms are related to last year’s landmark parole bill, HB 2286. The law created a process called “administrative parole,” which will allow some nonviolent offenders to be released on parole without having to go through a parole hearing process.

This single parole reform represents a massive cost savings for the state. Administrative parole is estimated to reduce the prison population by 3,750 with an annual cost savings of $16.7 million when fully implemented. Unfortunately, building the systems needed to implement administrative parole has been slow and complicated by the process of changing board members with a new administration. By appointing reform-minded parole board members; creating more efficient, timely dockets; and continuing his push to increase parole board funding, Gov. Stitt could help realize the potential of administrative parole and lower the cost of incarceration in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s parole system is deeply broken. Parole releases declined 77 percent between 2008 and 2017. Administrative parole was intended to alleviate this problem, but whether recent reforms are effective will depend on the composition of the new parole board.

The past three years prove that altering the parole board’s makeup can have a real impact. Between 2016 and 2018, Oklahoma’s favorable parole board votes for nonviolent offenders increased from 27 percent to 33 percent, largely due to the appointment of a single prominent justice reform advocate. Kris Steele was appointed to the board in 2017, and he favored parole for nonviolent offenders in 50 percent of cases. Steele’s swing vote on the five-person board changed the outcomes for many nonviolent offenders up for parole.

Gov. Stitt now has the power to appoint three new board members. In addition to granting parole more often, appointing more reform-minded members could also help improve inmates’ trust in the system by making it run more smoothly and fairly.

Gov. Stitt has also proposed approximately $12 million in additional funding from the Legislature this session for prison diversion programs and to expedite pardon and parole requests for eligible Oklahoma inmates. This front-end investment should lead to real savings for taxpayers over time due to lower incarceration costs. Better funding should also strengthen public safety. Parole officers in this state average around 100 cases per officer, much higher than the average of 70 noted in studies of best parole practices. Hiring more officers and lowering caseloads can reduce recidivism by allowing officers to spend more time on higher-risk offenders.

Since 2016, a broad coalition has developed around criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Millions in tax dollars will be saved and thousands of people released home to their families if policymakers get this right. Gov. Stitt has a historic opportunity to use his executive authority to help create a parole process that begins restoring justice to Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

Damion Shade is a criminal justice policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute.

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