The five-member board is charged with determining whether inmates who are eligible for parole should be set free. Parole recommendations are forwarded to the governor, who must give final approval.
Prater says the board has been considering some inmates for parole before they have served enough time to become eligible to go before the panel. To accomplish this sleight of hand, Prater alleges, the board skirted the state's open meeting laws by using deliberately vague agenda items.
When he got wind of the alleged wrongdoing, Prater reviewed several past agendas and found that there was no way anyone interested in the parole board's work would have been able to tell it was going to consider the early release cases. He also scoured state statutes and found the board had no authority to consider early parole for any inmates who are proscribed from such consideration.
The board issued a statement Wednesday disagreeing with Prater's conclusion. At the request of the governor, it has placed a moratorium on the early consideration process for a time. It also plans to ask the attorney general's office for a ruling about the parole board's ability to place “85 percent law” offenders on the early release docket.
Several crimes in Oklahoma require inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence before they can be considered for parole. Of the 50 inmates Prater says have been illegally considered for early release by the board since 2010, at least five were serving time for 85 percent crimes.
The case of one of those inmates, a woman convicted of manslaughter in a 2006 drunken-driving death, was the string that began this ball unraveling. A relative of the man killed in that case contacted Prater after being notified by the state's victim information system that the woman was up for parole, even though she hadn't served 85 percent of her sentence.
Prater's digging found that board members had been using a secret parole docket. Members could ask that an inmate be placed on it, and if three members agreed, that inmate would be considered for early release.
One troubling piece of this story is the attitude of board member Richard Dugger. Prater found that it was Dugger who asked that the DUI manslaughter case be given early consideration. When he asked Dugger about it, he was told that “the board had the power to consider anyone they want,” Prater says. House Speaker Kris Steele also contacted Dugger about the case after learning of it and says he was essentially told to take a hike.
That sort of flippancy could resonate with voters in November when they will decide whether to remove the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders. Oklahoma is the only state whose governor must approve every parole. We have long argued for this change, and believe it's still a good idea — provided the board follows the letter of the law, all the time. More potential fallout: If Prater's allegations are proven true, some paroled inmates could be returned to prison to finish serving their time.
The governor and attorney general need to stay on top of this case. If an investigation finds Prater is right, then immediate personnel changes to the board must follow. The work of the Pardon and Parole Board must be beyond reproach.