Oklahoma's district attorneys want new restrictions put into state law that would keep most violent inmates from getting released early from prison except in cases of a clear injustice.
They also want changes to the law to prevent nonviolent inmates from being considered for parole early.
“These proposals are good for public safety. They strengthen public safety,” Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater said.
Prosecutors are upset because the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board repeatedly has considered early releases for inmates, even killers, who were not yet eligible for parole.
Board members said they acted under their commutation authority. They suspended considering such early release requests, though, after Prater complained in August. The board plans to vote on a new early release policy later this year.
Marc Dreyer, the parole board's chairman, said Friday he is asking legislators to leave the board alone for a year so it can prove itself.
“My hope is that the DAs and the Legislature would be willing to give the board a year to try to prove that we have turned the corner, the ship is upright, and that we're doing things with integrity and in the way that best advances public safety,” said Dreyer, a Tulsa minister.
“If they're dissatisfied at the end of the year, if they're dissatisfied with what we've done, then go ahead and do everything they think they need to do to change things around,” Dreyer said.
The legislative changes proposed by prosecutors would revamp how inmates ask for their prison sentences to be commuted.
“We've got to do something,” said Mike Boring, a district attorney for four counties in far northwest Oklahoma. “It's completely out of control.
“There has been a system in place for the commutations. It's been the good old boy system here,” Boring said Thursday. “With a phone call, you can get out any darn time you want if you just know the right person. … It's irritating when we try to do our jobs to protect the people and we've got this board that's running (like) loose cannons over the whole system.”
A commutation is simply a reduction in a convict's prison term such as from 25 years to 15 years. The parole board states on its website that there is no special process to apply for a commutation.
The board forwarded four commutation recommendations to the governor in 2011 and three in 2012, the board's general counsel, Tracy George, said.
Over the last few years, many of the inmates considered for commutations simply wrote parole board members or had an attorney or legislator ask, according to interviews with current and former board members.
No public notice was given the first time the board took up such requests. The governor would get involved — and have the final say — if the board recommended commutation.
Prosecutors want new law that would require inmates to apply directly to the governor for a commutation.
Under their proposals, the governor then would decide whether or not to get a recommendation from the parole board before acting.
Murderers and other violent offenders would be required to have three written recommendations — from the current district attorney, the current county judge and the current sheriff or police chief from the city where the crime occurred.
“That's the deal. If it's a true miscarriage of justice, then you'll get those three signatures. If it's not, then you won't,” said Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association.
Other inmates would have to get two recommendations from “trial officials” to apply to the governor for clemency.
The governor would be required to immediately provide copies of any clemency application to the district attorney and the victim or victim's representatives.
Prosecutors acknowledge the changes would make commutations rare. Prosecutors insist that is the way it should be — an extraordinary remedy to undo an injustice that came to light after an inmate's conviction.
Prosecutors also want to block the parole board from bringing inmates up for parole early and from ignoring consecutive sentences. Prosecutors complain the board has considered some nonviolent offenders for parole before those offenders have served a third of their sentences.
The proposed restrictions would not prevent the board from voting for early release so that an inmate can be deported or on medical grounds when an inmate is near death.
Publicity about prosecution concerns sparked about three dozen citizens to complain to the parole board in late December and early January.
“I believe Oklahomans would rather pay more taxes than have these guys released early,” wrote Ray Brzozowski, of Altus. “Please don't do this. Our streets are dangerous enough with the ones who get off. Don't send them reinforcements.”
Attorney General Scott Pruitt also wants changes in the law because of his concerns about early releases.
Pruitt wants the parole board to be required to tell his office if it is considering early release for murderers and other violent inmates.
“I am very concerned that the parole process provides a meaningful opportunity for the victims of crime to be heard. Which is why I am asking to be notified,” he said.
Pruitt also said the parole board must have public safety as its paramount concern. “The parole process should not be used simply as a prison capacity management tool,” he said.