Two members of the state Pardon and Parole Board have become the focal point for competing visions of criminal justice in Oklahoma, where incarceration rates have long been some of the highest in the nation following decades of high mandatory minimum sentences that filled prions with nonviolent offenders.
Last year, Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed three new members to the five-person board, which has since set records for the number of commutation requests approved.
“The Governor is very proud of what the board has accomplished in the past 18 months,” a spokesperson for Stitt said Friday.
But several prosecutors have argued two of Stitt’s appointees – Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle – have shifted the focus away from victims.
Both board members have also been targeted by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, a private organization of prosecutors that has opposed some criminal justice reform efforts.
Three district attorneys – Laura Thomas, Jason Hicks and Angela Marsee – submitted letters this week asking Luck and Doyle to recuse themselves from several commutation hearings, according to documents obtained by The Frontier.
The district attorneys claim Luck and Doyle have a “predisposition towards release” and are ignoring “the work of the prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims, witnesses, judges, juries, appeal courts and all who actually spent months and years investigating their crimes and prosecuting their crimes,” according to letters submitted to the board.
Board member Allen McCall, a former district court judge for Cotton and Comanche counties, said the frustration from district attorneys stems from the fact that they are not used to having an engaged parole board.
For years, “they had little or no concern that their plea agreements or jury verdicts would be second guessed by the P&PB,” McCall recently wrote in an email obtained by The Frontier through an open records request.
Last month, the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association filed an open records request for emails and social media posts from board members that included terms related to the work of Luck and Doyle, including “City Care,” a nonprofit where Luck is chief executive officer.
The records request also asked for emails and social media messages with the terms “ministry,” “God,” “Jesus,” “right on crime,” “unjust,” and “draconian,” according to a copy of the request obtained by The Frontier.
Hicks, the president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Stitt declined to comment on the specific allegations raised by the district attorneys, but his office told The Frontier the governor supports the work of the Pardon and Parole Board.
“The Governor appointed Adam Luck, Kelly Doyle, and Robert Gilliland to the Pardon and Parole Board in order to bring a fresh perspective to the review process, address the inherited backlog in the system and move the needle in criminal justice reform for non-violent offenders,” said Baylee Lakey, Stitt’s communications director.
The philosophical split on criminal justice has not fallen along partisan lines as both conservative and liberal organizations have supported recent efforts to reduce incarceration rates.
Last week, representatives from both the right-leaning Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the left-leaning Oklahoma Policy Institute put out statements in support of Stitt’s appointments to the board.
“But I think it’s always important to note that our opposition is also non partisan,” said Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU, which has advocated for sentencing reform. “Prosecutors in Oklahoma who are fighting back are members or both parties.”
Criticism of board members has not just come from prosecutors, as McCall, the retired judge who was originally appointed to the board by former Gov. Mary Fallin in 2017, has also accused Luck, Doyle and the board’s executive director, Steven Bickley, of working to reduce incarceration rates.
Last month, McCall threatened to accuse Bickley of a crime if he didn’t attempt to reverse an opinion that death row inmates are eligible for commutation hearings.
In a June 7 email, McCall accused Luck and Doyle of working on behalf of the “social justice reform crowd” and being “controlled” by Kris Steele, the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) who has been an advocate for sentencing reform.
“I think we are truly at a moment in time where the real issue is who is going to be in charge of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system,” Steele told The Frontier. “Is it going to be prosecutors who promote policies centered on punishment and retribution, or is it going to be the people of Oklahoma who understand incorporating grace, reconciliation and redemption?”
Oklahomans in recent years have supported efforts to reform sentencing laws and redirect some drug users away from prison and into rehabilitation programs.
In 2016, voters approved a state question that reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“Prosecutors are using their power to circumvent what voters said they want,” McAfee said.
On May 20, Bickley, the parole board’s executive director, met with members of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association with the goal to “de-escalate those issues that arose between our agencies,” according to emails.
After the meeting, Bickley sent an update to board members, describing the meeting as “constructive,” but said “there was no agreement on how to resolve this issue going forward.”