A former Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board member who recommended more inmates for early release consideration over the past three years than any other board member says the secret to getting an inmate’s name on the list for early consideration isn’t really a secret at all.
“Almost always it would be an inmate letter,” said former Attorney General Susan Loving, who served on the parole board for a stint in the 1990s and throughout Gov. Brad Henry’s administration before leaving the board in early 2011.
Sometimes legislators and attorneys also would make requests, she said.
There were 50 inmates recommended for early release consideration by board members from 2010 through June 2012, and Loving recommended 15 of them.
That was more than double the number recommended by any other board member during that time.
Other current and former board members who recommended inmates for early consideration during that time and the numbers of inmates they recommended included Richard Dugger, 7; James Brown, 7; Currie Ballard, 5; Marc Dreyer, 5; Lynnell Harkins, 5; Clinton Johnson, 3; David Moore, 2; and undetermined, 1.
“I probably got 80 to 100 letters a month from people asking to be put on an early docket,” Loving said. “I read every single one of those letters.”
Loving said many of the letters were easy rejections, but occasionally she would see letters from inmates she thought deserved a closer look.
In those cases, she said she would ask the staff to prepare a report that would detail the crimes and the inmate’s actions in prison.
Sometimes, those reports would lead to early release recommendations.
DA questions practice
Controversy over the early release consideration list erupted this past week when Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater wrote a scathing letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board accusing it of violating the state Open Meeting Act by placing inmates on the early consideration list without proper public notice.
Board members acted to put inmates on the list under an agenda item labeled “docket modification,” which provided the public with “no notice” of what they were planning to do, Prater said.
Prater also objected to the board placing on the early release consideration list inmates who had committed major crimes and had not met a legal requirement that they serve 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole.
Some officials have since argued that such inmates can be released early under commutation statutes, even though they can’t be paroled. Prater disputes that interpretation.
The parole board has said it will request an attorney general’s opinion on that issue.
The governor has asked the board to review its agendas to make sure they give the public as much information as possible.
Loving said the same process has been used for at least the last couple decades, and interested persons were notified before final votes were taken on whether to recommend release of early consideration inmates.
Inmates seek relief
For thousands of Oklahoma prison inmates, the once obscure “docket modification” list is the Holy Grail.
It is the chance to be considered for early release before serving the amount of time and accumulating the number of good time credits normally required to attain parole consideration.
While some inmates have written letters to board members to get on the early release list, others have sought assistance.
In the case that sparked the current controversy, former Oklahoma County District Judge Leamon Freeman persuaded board member Richard Dugger to recommend a name to the early consideration list.
Freeman has said he wasn’t paid for his services.
Weighing the cases
Loving said she sometimes received similar requests from attorneys and occasionally from state legislators. Some of those requests were accepted and others rejected, depending on the inmate’s history, she said.
There are a few attorneys who make money off families of inmates by putting together packets of information for parole board members to consider — even in cases where the crimes were heinous and the inmates have virtually no chance of early release, she said.
“Those lawyers have zero credibility with me,” Loving said.
There are other, credible attorneys who see an inmate serving what they believe to be an unjust sentence and contact board members, she said.
How a board member reacts to such a request may depend on how much the board member trusts the attorney, she said. Loving said she tried to always give as much attention to inmates without attorneys as she did to those with attorneys.
Loving said she was always aware of her responsibility to keep the public safe and would reject any request she felt might jeopardize the public, regardless of who it came from. She said she also rejected any request from people who asked that she not reveal they had made the request.
Prater said Friday that he has problems with a system where who an inmate knows can make a difference in that inmate getting out early when other inmates who committed lesser, nonviolent crimes and have behaved well in prison remain behind bars because they don’t have connections.