Stitt cut Oklahoma’s prison population, sentencing alternatives still unfunded
Candidate Kevin Stitt campaigned on lowering the nation’s highest incarceration rate, emphasizing the need to provide more help for non-violent offenders.
He kept the former promise, following the will of voters in his first year as governor by signing the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history and releasing 523 non-violent offenders. In all, Stitt’s office says he signed 774 commutations, 290 pardons, and 101 paroles in 2019.
Under his administration, Oklahoma’s prison population has decreased by 20% for men and 30% for women. Yet, neither Stitt nor the Legislature has provided the specific prison alternatives voters mandated.
“We’ve closed two private prisons. We have 5,000 fewer people incarcerated. So from a fiscal standpoint, we’ve saved— it’s about 25,000 an inmate to incarcerate them for a year — We’ve saved a lot of money for the taxpayers,” Stitt told Oklahoma Watch reporters in an Oct. 13 interview. “I think trying to have policies where we lock people up that we’re afraid of, not that we’re mad at.”
In 2016, voters passed state questions reclassifying some low-level, non-violent drug offenses as misdemeanors and channeling the savings from lower incarceration rates into mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Those voter-mandated alternative approaches outlined in State Question 781 remain unfunded. In fact, zero dollars have been set assigned, an Oklahoma Watch report in August revealed.
Stitt proposed funding in only one of his four budgets. His request for $10 million for State Question 781 initiatives went unfunded. Some legislative leaders claim to have fulfilled the spirit of the law by investing in another diversion program called Smart on Crime.
Stitt, however, signed a series of re-entry reform bills aimed at making it easier for people with criminal convictions to find jobs.
One provides prisoners nearing release state-issued identification and job training. Another bans state boards from denying professional licenses based on criminal convictions five years or older unless the offense is directly related to the job duties. However, it included exceptions for violent felonies and sexual offenses.
Oklahoma became the sixth state to make the expungement process automatic, a bill Stitt signed in May.
Recent efforts to reduce court fines and fees, disproportionately affecting lower-income people coming out of the criminal justice system, have proven more challenging to get through the Legislature.
Senate Bill 1458, which proposed eliminating court fines paid to six state agencies and lowering the amount district attorneys can charge in probation supervision fees, cleared the House and Senate but was ultimately left out of the 2023 budget.
Stitt said the state is well-positioned to reduce court costs because lawmakers changed how district attorney’s offices are funded. Senate Bill 1068, enacted in 2019, directs district attorneys to deposit probation supervision fees into the state’s general fund.
Stitt fulfilled another 2018 campaign promise by resuming Oklahoma executions. Under Stitt, Oklahoma ended its years-long execution pause and withstood legal challenges to its lethal injection procedures. The state is scheduled to execute more than 20 prisoners through 2024.
When Stitt took office in early 2019, the state was moving forward with a plan to execute prisoners with nitrogen gas. This proposal was ultimately abandoned after officials were unable to find a willing supplier of a gas distribution device.
In February 2020, the attorney general’s office and corrections department announced they had found a supplier of lethal injection drugs and were prepared to resume executions under an updated protocol. Executions remained on hold through 2020 and the first half of 2021 due to a pending federal lawsuit over the constitutionality of the state’s execution procedures.
John O’Connor, appointed by Stitt following Hunter’s resignation in June 2021, sought execution dates for seven death row prisoners removed from the lawsuit in August 2021. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted the request weeks later, and the state ended a nearly its nearly seven-year execution moratorium on Oct. 27, 2021, putting John Marion Grant to death.
Grant vomited and violently convulsed after the drugs were administered, media witnesses reported. Attorneys representing death row prisoners testified in a federal trial earlier this year that Grant likely suffered extreme pain and suffering during the procedure. The state countered by arguing a large sedative dose had rendered Grant fully unconscious at the time of the vomiting.
According to witnesses, five other executions carried out over the past year did not have visible complications. In June, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot ruled that the state’s lethal injection protocol does not violate the eighth amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Stitt granted clemency once in his term, commuting Julius Jones’ death sentence to life without the possibility of parole hours before his scheduled execution on Nov. 18, 2021. During an Oct. 19 gubernatorial debate, Stitt declined to answer a question on why he granted clemency and if he believes Jones is innocent.
Stitt denied clemency for death row prisoners Bigler Stouffer and James Coddington, who both received a favorable recommendation of leniency from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. The governor appoints three of the board’s five members.
Dark money groups have targeted Stitt over his decision to commute hundreds of prison sentences, mostly for people convicted of drug or property crimes. One advertisement released in early March claims that Stitt approved the “largest mass release of felons” of U.S. history, though the prisoners released in the November 2019 commutations were convicted of crimes that were reclassified as misdemeanors under State Question 780.
Ashlynd Huffman covers criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and 405-240-6359. Follow her at @AshlyndHuffman.