The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is asking the state attorney general to issue an opinion whether inmates, including those sentenced to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, are eligible for commutation.
Terry Jenks, executive director of the Parole Board, wrote in his request Monday to Attorney General Scott Pruitt that the state constitution tasks board members “to make an impartial investigation and study of applicants for commutations, pardons or paroles, and by a majority vote make its recommendations to the governor of all deemed worthy of clemency.”
DA questions process
The request comes after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater alleged the board has considered parole for ineligible inmates. He said the state's “truth in sentencing law” passed by lawmakers requires that at least 85 percent of an inmate's sentence be served before parole is possible.
Parole board members don't list the names of offenders proposed for commutation under the agenda item “docket modifications” in 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 of the inmates for commutation, the board schedules a hearing and lists the inmates' names as well as notifies prosecutors and victim family members who signed up for notification at least 20 days in advance.
Jenks wrote that state law gives board members the authority to consider an offender “out of the normal processing procedure” with the concurrence of at least three members. That gives the board the authority to hear offenders on an earlier docket, he said.
If the board recommends commutation — the governor's ability to shorten or modify prison sentences — it's up to the governor to grant it, according to the state constitution.
85 percent is at issue
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.
Jenks said state laws don't prohibit the board from granting commutation to inmates sentenced under the 85 percent law.
The statutory language, including the 85 percent crimes language, states that “nothing in this act shall be construed to impair or abrogate the use of clemency by way of commutation or pardon,” Jenks wrote in his letter to Pruitt.
Pardon and Parole Board members have said no one who was convicted of an 85 percent crime has been considered for or granted parole before eligibility and that only a few 85 percent convicts were considered for commutation.
Fallin, others meet
Gov. Mary Fallin, who appointed three of the five parole board members, and her legal staff along with her chief of staff met Monday with Jenks. Others in the meeting were Parole Board Chairman Lynnell Harkins, Parole Board Deputy Director J.D. Daniels and the agency's general counsel. The request for the attorney general's opinion came after the meeting.
“The governor's office will continue to work toward ensuring the law is obeyed and justice is properly served,” said Aaron Cooper, Fallin's press secretary. “As she has maintained all along, the governor believes transparency and openness are essential for the Pardon and Parole Board as well as the clemency process itself.”