The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has dramatically decreased the number of stage one commutation applications it reviews each month, potentially creating a backlog of years for inmates applying to have their sentences reduced, especially if voters approve new sentencing reforms later this year.  

With nearly 3,000 commutation applications awaiting the first review, staff for the parole board had scheduled monthly dockets through March of next year with 425 offender applications each.

But this month’s docket was decreased to 150 following a request by board member Allen McCall who said the dockets were too big. 

“I just think right now is a time where we ought to take a couple of months and back off a bit and get our process retooled,” McCall said during the August meeting. 

At that August meeting, McCall vaguely referenced letters from agency employees who he said complained about working conditions and the workload being placed on them. 

McCall also criticized former agency director Steven Bickley, who resigned last month citing threats made by McCall

Members of the Pardon and Parole Board look over a list of commutation requests during a meeting in Oklahoma City on March 9, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The Frontier filed an open records request for the letters referenced by McCall but the agency cited the privacy of personnel records in denying the request. 

Two sources with knowledge of the letters, but not authorized to speak for the agency, said they included complaints about the challenge COVID-19 had created and the lack of cooperation from the Department of Corrections when investigating applicants. 

Tom Bates, the board’s new executive director, said he would take the next few weeks to better understanding the situation and offer some suggestions.

Tom Bates. Courtesy

“Having just got on board, my directive is to assess where we are and come up with some recommendations on how we proceed going forward,” Bates told The Frontier. “I wouldn’t want to say yet where that number (of commutation requests) should be each month.”

If September’s number became the norm it could mean some applications would have to wait nearly two years to be heard. 

Commutations, which require a two-stage process, can be granted to inmates because of a change in law, new evidence not known at the time of trial, or a belief by board members that the original sentence was excessive.

In past years the parole board would go months without a commutation request but that changed after voters approved a state question that reclassified simple drug possession as a misdemeanor and increased the dollar threshold on felony property crimes.

The state Legislature later gave the parole board the authority to accelerate commutation requests for inmates serving sentences that had been reclassified.

Tana Hackley pats her fellow inmates on the shoulder as she leaves prison after being released during what is believed to be the single largest mass commutation in United States history at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility in Taft. SHANE BEVEL/For The Frontier

The board set a record for the number of approved commutations, reversing a past trend of few approvals.

But in recent months the number of approved commutation requests has significantly decreased, in part because many of the requests are from inmates with convictions not impacted by recent sentencing changes.

State Question 805 could bring more commutation requests before the board if approved by Oklahoma voters in November. If passed, a previous non-violent felony conviction could not be used to enhance the sentence of a person convicted of another non-violent felony.