Commutation, time served. That was the unanimous recommendation of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board this week for Robyn Allen, an inmate at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center.
Allen was six years into a 20-year sentence for trafficking in illegal drugs — a crime that mandates 85 percent of the sentence served before parole eligibility. It was her first felony conviction.
“This looks to me like you made someone mad,” said Allen McCall, a pardon and parole board member who was formerly a district judge in Stephens County.
McCall said this week he believed Allen’s sentence was excessive. At one point he and other pardon and parole board members wondered if they were looking at the right paperwork.
“I’m looking for aggravators or something that would warrant a twenty-year sentence,” McCall said.
Allen’s case was featured on a Reveal podcast in September of 2017 about Oklahoma’s high female incarceration rate. Allen is from Stephens County, which has the third highest rate in Oklahoma for sending women to prison.
The story “Let Down and Locked Up,” and the audio piece “Does the Time Fit the Crime,” featured Allen and looked into Oklahoma’s high female incarceration rates.
The stories caught the attention of Eric Cullen, a private investigator who helped form Another Chance Justice Project, a Tulsa-based non-profit created in 2018 with the goal of helping women like Allen get out of prison. So far, the group has helped free almost fifty women from incarceration.
Even though the state passed criminal justice reforms over the last couple of years, Allen’s crime of trafficking in illegal drugs didn’t fit the criteria for early release under the guidelines of the reforms. That’s when Another Chance Justice Project stepped in. Cullen and co-founders Kevin Armstrong, a former newspaper editor, and Claremore business owner Rhonda Bear helped form the project to grant freedom to women whose sentences seemed excessive.
Allen’s sentence was one of them.
“Does the punishment fit the crime?” Cullen asked. “Are you a danger to society. I mean that is what we should be addressing.”
In 2013, Allen was arrested with an amount of methamphetamine just over the amount constituting “drug possession,” earning her a trafficking charge. She remembers the officers pointing a red laser at her daughter’s forehead before being arrested in her home on Walnut Avenue in Duncan. Tearfully, she recalled the judge telling her that he would make an example of her case saying she was, “a known trafficker.”
At the time of her trial, Allen’s mother Marianne Waldron had enough money to retain a lawyer. With $5,000 in hand, she obtained the legal services of Casey Davis out of the Lawton law firm GWC Lawyers. Davis convinced Allen to enter a blind plea, which allowed the judge to unilaterally choose Allen’s sentence.
She was given 20 years in prison.
When reached for comment about Allen’s case after her commutation, Davis said he was faced with some tough choices when he went before the now retired Judge Joe Enos, who had a reputation for being tough on crime. “She was looking at 30-35 years,” Davis said by phone.
“This is a case of how not to deal with drug offenses,” he added, saying what Allen really needed was help to treat her addiction.
Allen’s addiction started after she was hurt on the job, she said. She was moving a heavy television set while cleaning a room at hotel she worked at when she threw her back out. When the pain medicine prescriptions ran out, she turned to smoking meth and then selling to support her habit. She’d been in treatment for a short period of time but felt like it wasn’t working.
When Another Chance Justice Project got involved, they gave Allen representation that would see her through the commutation process. Joseph Norwood, a a criminal defense attorney based in Tulsa took up the case. He wasn’t surprised that Allen got a lengthy sentence.
“This is going to sound horrible but I’ve been practicing criminal defense in Oklahoma for fifteen years now and it didn’t really shock me too much. Especially in a rural county like that. They like to put people in prison,” he said.
Norwood was surprised that she pleaded out so early, saying that the state should’ve done more to prove her case.
“In Oklahoma we have (one of) the highest incarceration rates in the world. You know, it’s not like that for no reason. It’s because stuff like this happens way more often than it should,” Norwood said.
While in prison, Allen lost her younger brother, who died in prison of liver failure. During her commutation hearing, Allen broke down in tears recounting how terrible she felt when he passed away.
Her daughter Cherise also did some time in prison for being caught with methamphetamines and a set of scales. She was released in early 2018 from a transitional home and is now reunited with her young daughter and husband. Cherise has been clean for more than a year, is working and her and her husband are expecting their second child, Allen said.
Allen’s commutation now goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt for a signature. Eric Cullen and those at Another Chance Justice Project expect him to sign it within the next few weeks.
Whenever Robyn does walk through the doors of Mabel Bassett, she’ll head to a transitional home to receive drug treatment and help finding a job (she currently owes more than $20,000 in fines and fees related to her incarceration).
“I’m done,” she said tearfully before the board on Wednesday about her drug abuse and being in prison. She said she’s happy to have another chance to help her mom as she gets older and be the mother she’s always wanted.