Past Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board agendas could have been worded better, but there was never an attempt to sneak commutations by anyone, board members told The Oklahoman Tuesday.
“We've not tried to conceal anything from anyone,” board Chairwoman Lynnell Harkins said. “We'll do whatever we need to make it right.”
“There were no secret meetings,” agreed Parole Board member David Moore, of Edmond. “I understand the perception and the appearance, but there was no mal-intent to not be transparent. If there is some way we can tweak our process to be more transparent, then we certainly want to do that ... We will fix what we need to fix to make sure there is no appearance of secrecy.”
Board members made their comments to The Oklahoman Tuesday outside of the first regular Pardon and Parole Board meeting held since Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater released a scathing letter last week. The letter accused parole board members of repeatedly violating the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act by operating a secret early release consideration docket that included inmates not eligible for parole because they hadn't met mandatory sentencing requirements.
Prater attended the morning session of Tuesday's meeting and met briefly with several board members during breaks.
Afterward, he described the discussions as “appropriate” and “professional” but said his office's criminal investigation into whether the board willfully violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act is ongoing.
“We're in the middle of that right now,” Prater said. He also said that it is unresolved whether inmates who were released under these disputed circumstances will be required to return to prison.
Prater said the most surprising thing he learned Tuesday was that many board members were not aware of his concerns that they were violating the Open Meeting Act before the district attorney sending out a letter on Aug. 8.
“What I was surprised about was that they were surprised when my letter came out Aug. 8,” Prater said. “That's the first they had heard of any of my concerns. I had called the governor's office on July 19 with my concerns and, as well, Terry Jenks, the director of the parole board with my concerns and fully laid out that there were issues with prisoners being placed early on these parole dockets. So I was amazed to find out today, and they were quite upset about it, that they had not been notified previous to my Aug. 8 letter being revealed.”
“That's astounding to me and unfair to them,” Prater said.
Alex Weintz, the governor's communications director, confirmed Prater spoke with the governor's deputy general counsel in July, but said he has been told that Prater only complained about the parole board's practices and didn't mention alleged open meeting violations or illegal actions.
Prater said his secrecy criticism of the board centers on an agenda item labeled “docket modification” that the board has repeatedly listed on its monthly agendas.
It is under that agenda item that board members have asked their colleagues to consider adding names of inmates to early release dockets who ordinarily would not yet be eligible for parole because they had not served enough of their sentences and obtained enough good behavior credits. Prater especially objected to inmates being placed on the list who had committed major crimes and been sentenced under a statute that requires them to serve 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole.
Board members told The Oklahoman they recommended such inmates for early release consideration under commutation authority rather than parole laws and that their actions were therefore legal.
Prater said Tuesday that he believes the board does have authority to recommend commutations to the governor, but he argued that was not what they were doing.
“They were calling it a parole,” he said. “They were putting people on the parole docket. If they wanted to call it a commutation, I understand that there is an attorney general's opinion that has been requested on that. I think a strict reading of the Constitution says that they are allowed to commute 85 percent prisoners even though I don't think that's the intent or will of the people ... or the legislative intent based on all the restrictions they put on early parole.”
Prater said placing someone on a parole docket and then calling it a commutation is “a problem.”
“Let's be more honest and open about that,” he said. “Commutations ought to be relatively rare.”
Harkins said the board doesn't have a “commutations docket,” as such, because that was abolished at the request of former Gov. Brad Henry during his term in office.
Prater said “docket modification” doesn't give district attorneys and the general public notice of what is really happening.
“That's why I call it secret,” Prater said. “Now was it done in the dark behind closed doors? Absolutely not. But any member of the public who would have looked at the docket modification item, they wouldn't have known what that meant.”
Moore said he understands Prater's position.
“He has a point there,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, we're humans, as well ... When you do something for a long time, you don't notice it until somebody points it out.”
85% law is questioned
Board member Richard Dugger agreed that the docket modification agenda item can and should be made more clear.
However, he said an Aug. 1 letter he received from state Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, demonstrates that not all legislators favor requiring inmates sentenced under the 85 percent law to serve 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for early release.
In that letter, Sen. Wilson asks Dugger to consider recommending a “compassionate and reasonable solution,” for a 57-year-old inmate named Curtis Horton, who was sentenced to 35 years under the 85 percent law and cannot be considered for parole until he is 82.
“I am disappointed by how little compassion the Oklahoma Legislature shows in crafting legislation to punish,” Wilson said in the letter.
Dugger, a former district attorney, questioned how Prater has handled the current controversy. Dugger said when he was district attorney and received complaints about agenda items not being specific, he would contact board members and suggest changes.
All five board members said they are willing to make any changes necessary to make their actions clear to the public.
“We are a praying board,” said board member Currie Ballard. “Whatever errors we have done, we will correct, and they weren't deliberate.”