An analysis from criminal justice reform group FWD.us says commutation approvals in Oklahoma have plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their report shows the pardon and parole board approved 33% fewer stage one applications last year compared to 2019, despite considering more applications. The overall approval rate fell from 46% to 19%, and the approval rate for nonviolent offenses dropped from 74% to 35%.
The analysis did not include applications in 2019 under an accelerated docket lawmakers created for people convicted of certain drug and property crimes before penalties for those offenses were reduced through a state question.
FWD.us Director of Research and Policy for Criminal Justice Reform Felicity Rose said the decline is especially concerning because of COVID outbreaks in prisons. As of Friday, 43 inmates had died from complications possibly related to the illness, nearly as many as are on death row.
"But these are people who weren’t sentenced to die in prison. They were given other sentences that should have ended, should have had a chance to go home to their families, but they will never have that chance because of this pandemic. So, we think there’s still time to protect others, and commutation, which is meant to reduce excessive sentences, is one really good tool the state has that they could be using more," Rose said.
Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Tom Bates was hired in September. He said he's discussed the report with FWD.us and is reviewing his agency's data to see whether everyone is looking at the same information.
"The pool of nonviolent offenses could have been very different from 2019 to 2020, is what I’m saying," Bates said.
Bates noted the board has not missed a meeting during the pandemic, something that's happened in many other states. The board is also working through a backlog of applications that built up as the pandemic slowed investigations required before they're considered.
Oklahoma's commutation process happens in two stages: In stage one, the pardon and parole board judges an application's merits, and in stage two, they make a final determination.