OKLAHOMANS let it be known on Nov. 6 that they're ready to allow the state Pardon and Parole Board to have the final say on paroles involving nonviolent offenders. Now they'll get a chance to give their ideas about implementing the new law to the men and women who will make those decisions.
Parole Board Chairman Marc Dreyer says the panel wants to hear from the public and prosecutors before moving forward with the change in the state constitution that was approved by voters through passage of State Question 762.
SQ 762 removes the governor from the parole process for people convicted of certain nonviolent offenses. Oklahoma had been the only state that required its governor to sign off on every parole recommendation, a process that was time-consuming for the governor and costly for the state. The Oklahoma District Attorneys Council opposed the state question and, in the weeks before the election, Gov. Mary Fallin withdrew her support. But the question received 59 percent approval from voters.
In opposing SQ 762, Fallin cited concerns that the change could result in some inmates being released on nonviolent offenses after having been convicted or sentenced previously for a violent crime. But parole board members and their staff weigh large files about each inmate on the docket, files that include their juvenile histories and prior offenses.
Not only that, but the fact an offender has committed a violent crime doesn't mean he or she will do the same after being released, just as there is no guarantee someone incarcerated for a nonviolent offense won't commit a more serious crime down the road.
Dreyer says members, who spend long hours looking at cases in advance of the monthly board meetings, have always approached their work as if they were making the final say. “I think we're using due diligence at a maximum level now,” he told the Tulsa World.
Dreyer's call for outside input is a good move. Although the new law takes effect once the Nov. 6 vote is certified, it may not be in place until the December or January meeting because he wants to allow time for public comments. As he put it this week, “We waited 60 years to get here. It would be more trouble than we would want to imagine if we came out of the chute on this upside-down.”
Residents should be encouraged by that approach, and by the board's efforts to improve transparency. Oklahoma County's district attorney has been critical of how the board places inmates on its docket for early parole consideration. At their meeting this week, board members discussed a change that would place names of those inmates on meeting agendas, allowing prosecutors and the public ample time to weigh in.
A retooling of the board's website by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services is in the works and should make dockets easier to find and understand. Consideration is being given to centralized mailing and email addresses through OMES for the public to use.
These are changes for the better, and so is SQ 762. One parole board official estimated that perhaps 70 nonviolent offenders per month will wind up being paroled under the new law. That translates to about 850 per year from a prison population of roughly 26,000. Every other state somehow manages to handle most parole cases without the governor riding shotgun. Oklahoma will, too.