Gov. Mary Fallin doesn't believe members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board acted maliciously, but her staff will be meeting next week with the agency's officials to discuss a variety of ways to make their meetings and agendas more open, top aides said Thursday.
“The implication is that it was secret because there was less information provided than should have been provided, according to D.A. (David) Prater,” said Denise Northrup, Fallin's chief of staff. “There's a distinct difference between someone ineligible for parole and what they're doing, which is actually commuting a sentence.”
Parole board members don't list the names of offenders proposed for commutation under the agenda item “docket modifications” during their monthly meetings; instead they bring the names up during that point of the meeting.
If three of the five members vote to consider any for commutation, the board schedules a hearing and lists their names as well as notify prosecutors and victim family members who signed up for notification at least 20 days in advance, said Alex Weintz, Fallin's communications director.
If the board recommends commutation, it's up to the governor to grant it, according to the state constitution.
“The governor doesn't think there's malicious intent in anything the Pardon and Parole Board was doing,” Weintz said. “However, there are improvements that can be made and we're going to work on those.”
The board has a docket listing inmates being considered for eventual paroles and pardons but none for commutations.
Northrop said the governor respects the fact that the board is an independent panel.
“I don't think we look backward and question their legal authority to act,” she said. “Some of the ones that came to us we rejected.”
Weintz said he is unaware of the governor or anyone in her office asking the board to consider early release for an inmate.
Fallin appoints three of the five parole board members.
“They consider who they want to consider, send us the recommendations, which we then act on,” he said. “The governor views her role as she gets these recommendations from the Pardon and Parole Board and then says either yes or no.
“When the governor's looking at these cases, her priority is to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and that justice is served and that she makes the right decision for the safety of our communities,” Weintz said. “And that's one of the reasons why her approval rate has been very conservative because we want to make sure that people who should be behind bars stay behind bars.”
Fallin reviews all parole board recommendations, Weintz said, spending an estimated eight to 10 hours a month reviewing an estimated 100 to 150 cases. Since taking office in January 2011, the GOP governor has approved about 51 percent of the inmates who have been recommended for parole by the parole board, considerably less than the 85 percent rate of her Democratic predecessor during the first 18 months he was in office.
Prater, Oklahoma County's district attorney, said earlier this week the parole board's actions on docket modifications violate the state's Open Meeting Act.
Fallin is taking Prater's concerns “very seriously” and has asked parole board members to place a moratorium on the practice of docket modifications, Weintz said.
The governor believes the actions by the board should be as open as possible, he said.
Prater also questioned whether board members have the authority to recommend early release or commutations for inmates serving 85 percent sentences.
Certain felony convictions of violent crimes, including murder and manslaughter, carry the requirement that an offender serve at least 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
State law, however, doesn't state that inmates serving 85 percent sentences can't be granted commutation, said Rebecca Frazier, Fallin's deputy legal counsel.
The state constitution gives parole board members the power to recommend commutations, pardons and paroles except in cases regarding convicts sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. It also gives the governor the authority to commute sentences after a favorable recommendation by a majority vote of the board.
The governor is seeking a formal request to Attorney General Scott Pruitt for an official opinion on whether inmates serving 85 percent sentences are eligible for commutation.
The governor doesn't think there's malicious intent in anything the Pardon and Parole Board was doing. However, there are improvements that can be made and we're going to work on those.”