Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Small: Proposed commutation rules unwise

Proposed commutation rules unwise
By Jonathan Small

Oklahoma law allows individuals convicted of crimes to seek a commutation, which changes their sentence to one less severe, in situations where officials determine an unjust or excessive sentence has been handed down.

For example, after Oklahoma voters chose to lower the penalties for certain property crimes a few years ago, individuals previously convicted of those same crimes for the prior longer sentences were able to seek commutations.

There have been no major controversies generated by Oklahoma’s commutation process, which is used relatively rarely (other than the previously mentioned mass commutation produced by voter action).

Even so, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board now wants to make it more difficult for inmates to get a commutation.

Currently, inmates can request a commutation unless they have already been denied one in the last three years.

But the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has proposed rules that would require inmates to meet one of four criteria:

  • The sentencing range for a prisoner’s current offenses has statutorily changed.
  • The prisoner does not have a projected release date and has served at least 30 years.
  • The prisoner has a favorable recommendation from a trial official, such as a district attorney or judge.
  • The prisoner has a favorable recommendation from the governor.

Notably, Oklahoma lawmakers have chosen to set strict limitations on who is eligible for parole (such as time-served requirements), but not for commutation. This shows lawmakers want greater flexibility in considering commutations.

Also, the proposed rules take aspects already present as a check-and-balance in the current commutation process and instead make them a prerequisite for beginning the process. For example, trial officers can already provide “a written recommendation or protest prior to consideration” of a commutation request. And the governor is also involved.

We already provide a role for district attorneys (whose opinions carry much weight) and the governor, but the board’s proposed rules make those individuals the gatekeepers for the commutation process rather than experts to be consulted.

Commutation requests are handled on a case-by-case basis for a reason. There are factors that can be mitigating for one person that don’t exist for another convicted of the same crime. For example, it was once common for women to get harsher sentences for failing to prevent child abuse than the sentence handed down to a male who actually abused a child. That’s widely seen as an injustice today and provides an example of the type of situation where a commutation may be sought.

On the whole, Oklahoma’s commutation process has worked well for many years. The proposed rules from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board are completely unnecessary and counterproductive. They should be shelved and the current system maintained. This is yet another classic case of bureaucratic overreach that must be defeated.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. 


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