Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is down to four members for the time being.

Board Chair Robert Gilliland resigned in mid-December due to health reasons. He was appointed in February 2019. His absence raises the possibility of tie votes, which, according to board procedures, are considered denials.

In many cases, people in prison must wait three years before applying again after their application is denied. Pardon and parole board general counsel Kyle Counts told the board this week they can, however, bring back many cases with tie votes.

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%.

Oklahoma Watch

The COVID-19 pandemic has never been worse in Oklahoma, and at the end of this week, public bodies must go back to meeting in person.

A temporary change to the state’s open meetings act that allowed remote meetings expires on Sunday. That has state agencies and local governments trying to figure out how to meet safely.

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State parole investigators have finished reviewing 1,800 commutation applications from a backlog of around 3,000, according to an executive director's report given to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Monday.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s new leader said Monday he’s spent the past few weeks making a plan to tackle a backlog of commutation requests.

Executive Director Tom Bates said he expects there will be some training soon to help sort through around 3,000 applications that have built up as the board has taken up smaller dockets because of concerns about the review process.

"The whole purpose of this is to divide these up into some manageable buckets by objective criteria that allows us to help you as a aboard prioritize these pending applications," Bates said.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board hired a new executive director on Monday with a unanimous vote.

Tom Bates will now lead the agency. He was most recently a special adviser to the governor and director of an initiative trying to bring together Oklahoma’s health and human services agencies.

Bates was also interim director of the state health department for about a year and a half starting in April 2018. Bates stepped into that role after allegations of financial mismanagement at the agency, and he was in charge as it started up Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program.

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The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is set to ease up on its recent approach to commutations, at least temporarily.

With more than 2,700 pending applications, the agency had scheduled monthly dockets with 425 cases through March 2021, but board members would like to see dockets in the 150-case range for a couple of months after potential issues came to light.

Concerns include district attorney notifications not being made, misconduct reports not coming over from the Department of Corrections and information like past convictions missing from files.

Turbulent times continue at the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

Former Executive Director Steven Bickley resigned, effective Friday, following a dispute with board member and retired judge Allen McCall over the board’s ability to consider commutation requests from death row inmates. McCall threatened Bickley with a grand jury investigation, and he followed that up by telling the board last month he knew of issues agency staff had with Bickley.

McCall publicly specified Monday those were instances of derogatory language directed at staff.

The head of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board resigned this week after being threatened last month by a board member with a grand jury investigation of unspecified criminal activity.

Pardon and parole Executive Director Steven Bickley had asked the board earlier this month to approve an extended leave after board member and retired judge Allen McCall sent him an email accusing him of trying to force an anti-death penalty view on the board. That happened after an exchange about whether the board could consider commutation requests from death-row inmates.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is getting to work on rules for how it will handle commutation applications from inmates sentenced to die.

An attorney general opinion last month confirmed the interpretation of the board’s general counsel that it may consider their requests. Parole board member Kelly Doyle said Monday she’d like to hear from the inmates themselves in the first step of the process, in which the board generally gets a packet on their case.

Serge Melki

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Monday voted against letting its executive director take leave in a bid to help settle tensions between him and a board member who threatened him with a grand jury investigation.

The vote was 2–2, but the absence of Chair Robert Gilliland went down as a third vote against Executive Director Steven Bickley’s request for a roughly six-week leave.

Justice for Julius

Saying someone must advocate for the family of Paul Howell, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter released on Monday a 12-page summary to outline what he says is "overwhelming" evidence of guilt for Julius Jones, a Black man on death row 20 years for a crime he and advocates say he didn’t commit.

Updated June 9, 11:45 a.m. to include a statement from District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas. 

In response to a request from the district attorney for Logan and Payne Counties, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board said Monday it has no authority to disqualify members from hearing cases over potential conflicts of interest.

Executive Director Steven Bickley said DA Laura Austin Thomas made a blanket request based on Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle’s previous work with organizations that help inmates transition to life outside of prison.

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The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend special medical parole for 12 inmates determined to be at elevated risk from the coronavirus pandemic.

At a virtual meeting of the board on Wednesday morning, Steven Bickley, the body's executive director, explained how the specific inmates ended up on the docket. 

"The agency received a letter from [Oklahoma Department of Corrections] Director [Scott] Crow on Friday, May 1st, recommending 14 inmates for medical parole," Bickley said. "That is authorized by him under statute."

Matt Trotter / KWGS

Governor Kevin Stitt’s office said last week 404 inmates with sentences commuted to time served will be getting out of prison Thursday, but that’s not the case.

According the the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, 111 inmates will be released.

Others are serving time for felonies other than drug or property crimes that have since been reduced to misdemeanors, and discharging those other crimes requires more steps from the parole board, not just those Stitt took Friday.

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.