More than 450 prison inmates behind bars for low-level and non-violent charges were released Monday across the state of Oklahoma.
It’s believed these commutations mark the most prisoner releases on a single day in the history of the U.S. — the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Steve Bickley, executive director for the state's Pardon and Parole Board, oversaw the emotional, “memorable” release.
“When you see people reunited with their family and moms getting to hug their daughters, and parents hugging their children,” he says. “Sometimes there wasn't a dry eye around.”
He says it would have cost the state almost $12 million to continue incarcerating the inmates who were released Monday until the end of their sentence.
About 900 inmates were on the docket for release and Bickley’s office worked with the District Attorney to ensure “the ones that they were really worried about didn't get out,” he says.
The Sentencing Project reports Oklahoma now has the second-highest state imprisonment rate in the nation with 27,729 people behind prison bars — right behind the “incarceration capital of the U.S.”: Louisiana.
A series of 2017 criminal justice reforms reduced Louisiana's prison population by 7.6% and led Oklahoma’s incarceration rate to surpass Louisiana’s.
A 2019 report by nonprofit Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform estimates that without reform, the state prison population could reach 31,000 people incarcerated by 2028.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt campaigned on a promise of reducing the prison population in Oklahoma. Stitt has formed a task force to continue criminal justice reform in the state, Bickley says.
To help people who are released transition back into society, the state Department of Corrections held their first-ever transition fairs at 28 facilities. Nonprofits came into the prisons to share information about services they offer including housing, transportation, jobs and more.
The state also brought inmates set for release to the Department of Public Safety to get a driver’s license or state-issued ID.
“The goal was never just the simple release of inmates,” Bickley says. “But the goal all along was the successful re-entry of these inmates back into society.”
This year, more than a dozen bills were proposed to fix different parts of the state’s criminal justice system. If passed, the legislation could have shortened drug sentences, limited the use of cash bail, eased re-entry into society for former prisoners and reduced the use of lengthy sentences for people repeatedly conceived for the same nonviolent crimes.
But prosecutors, bail bond companies and some state law enforcement officials lobbied against these reforms.
Despite the success of Monday’s release, there’s still more work to be done in Oklahoma, Bickley says.
“I think what is really monumental about what just took place is it was a first step,” he says. “And overwhelmingly, everyone said it was the right step. And I think we can build upon that. And I think it'll create more momentum for more criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.”
This segment aired on November 5, 2019.
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