Calling it an “important step forward,” Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday said he would sign off on the release of more than 500 inmates from prison, the largest single-day release of prisoners in U.S. history.
Stitt gave a brief press conference at a special “expedited” commutation docket in Oklahoma City on Friday after Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board members voted to recommend commuting the sentences of 527 inmates convicted of possession or property crimes.
“Today we are implementing the will of the people,” Stitt said. “I truly believe that.”
The hearing, which differed from a normal commutation hearing, took place in front of dozens of media members, lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates. One Oklahoma Department of Corrections employee joked that it was probably the “most attention the Pardon and Parole Board had ever gotten.”
Friday’s hearing came just hours after House Bill 1269 went into effect. The bi-partisan bill was passed this summer and made retroactive a number of criminal justice reforms that reclassified some drug and property crimes. The inmates whose sentences were commuted effectively earned one-year sentences with time-served, meaning they are all eligible for release from prison on Monday.
Stitt said he will be at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft on Monday, where 70 women are expected to be released.
Stitt gave credit to lawmakers and state agency heads following Friday’s hearing, saying the prisoner release — which Rep. John Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said moved Oklahoma’s rate of incarceration from No. 1 to second in the U.S. — was due to good, hard work from people seeking the best for Oklahomans.
He specifically mentioned Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Interim Director Scott Crow as deserving praise for their efforts in making Friday a reality.
“When you get the right people running state agencies, it’s amazing what happens,” Stitt said.
Bickley called Friday a “historic day for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma,” and said the ultimate goal was more than just releasing prisoners, it was about their “successful re-entry back into society.”
Bickley said that DOC held “transition fairs,” where nonprofits and vendors assisted the soon-to-be released inmates with employment, mental health and health counseling, as well as helping inmates obtain state identification cards and driver’s licenses.
“It was a moving experience to watch the emotion on the faces of those inmates,” Bickley said.
More than 300 inmates who were on Friday’s commutation docket were removed by the board from consideration for release due to having allegedly been a part of a “serious incident” while in prison, or other factors. Those inmates are still eligible for the normal two-stage commutation docket, Bickley said.