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As COVID-19 Risk Grows in Prisons, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board May Streamline Commutations

Updated April 13, 7 p.m. 

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board could speed up the commutation process because of COVID-19.

Executive Director Steven Bickley said during a meeting on Monday they would try to get the turnaround time for commutation applications down to 30 days.

Inmates slated for release in the next 12 to 18 months would be prioritized for next month’s accelerated docket. Since the reclassification of some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors became retroactive, the parole board has been overwhelmed with commutation applications.

"As hard as we’ve been working, we are just processing what’s coming in the door. The number of commutation applications that we’re getting right now is between 250 to 300 a month," Bickley said.

Applications could be split among individual board members for recommendations and special meetings could be called to make the two-stage process faster. In the past six months, the parole board has addressed nearly 2,143 commutation requests received.

Parole board member Kelly Doyle wants inmates with medical risk considered for any faster commutation process, too. Board member and retired judge Allen McCall said they should be selective.

"I think our decisions need to be based on medical facts, medical histories and not a panic situation where let’s let 300 people out because they might get sick. I mean, they might get the flu, too. We’re not going to let them out for that reason," McCall said.

Doyle said it’s a matter of time before COVID-19 becomes a big problem in state prisons.

"The infection rate is 50% higher in prisons, and this isn’t the regular flu. I mean, this is killing people," Doyle said.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported last week five staff members and one inmate tested positive for COVID-19.

Correction: This story initially stated the Pardon and Parole Board addressed only around 25% of 2,143 commutation requests received over the past six months. The board put 500 requests through its docket for requests made under retroactive reclassifications of some drug and property crimes.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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