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Change in Oklahoma's "85 percent" rule would be good step

Jul 14, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

WE’VE said it many times — working to effect reforms in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system can be a trying exercise. A move suggested by the governor would turn the crank slightly in the right direction.
Gov. Mary Fallin wants the state Board of Corrections to change its policy regarding inmates incarcerated for crimes that mandate they serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. This has drawn strong criticism from at least one member of the Legislature and some prosecutors. The board considered the move last week but took no action.
Under the change, “85 percenters” would have the opportunity to earn good-behavior credits from the beginning of their sentence. The Department of Corrections has been requiring that no credits be accumulated until these inmates reach the 85 percent threshold, which has resulted in them serving more like 90 percent to 93 percent.

<p>by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: July 13, 2015</p>

<p>WE&rsquo;VE said it many times &mdash; working to effect reforms in Oklahoma's criminal justice system can be a trying exercise. A move suggested by the governor would turn the crank slightly in the right direction.</p>

<p>Gov. Mary Fallin wants the state Board of Corrections to change its policy regarding inmates incarcerated for crimes that mandate they serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. This has drawn strong criticism from at least one member of the Legislature and some prosecutors. The board considered the move last week but took no action.</p>

<p>Under the change, &ldquo;85 percenters&rdquo; would have the opportunity to earn good-behavior credits from the beginning of their sentence. The Department of Corrections has been requiring that no credits be accumulated until these inmates reach the 85 percent threshold, which has resulted in them serving more like 90 percent to 93 percent.</p>

<p>In a gubernatorial memo to the corrections board, Fallin noted that the state&rsquo;s 85 percent law only requires inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence, and doesn&rsquo;t mandate when credits can be accumulated.</p>

<p>It&rsquo;s important to emphasize that this change would not result in any 85 percenters getting out of prison before serving that amount of time. Instead, allowing these inmates to earn credits from Day One would mean their time in prison after getting to 85 percent would be shorter &mdash; perhaps a few months &mdash; than it would be otherwise. Ultimately, that will save the DOC millions of dollars and ease prison crowding.</p>

<p>In addition, the opportunity to earn credits from the beginning of a sentence could motivate inmates to behave, which is one reason why the state&rsquo;s correctional officers endorsed the proposal. &ldquo;Are we trying to rehabilitate these guys or not, and it doesn&rsquo;t seem like we are right now,&rdquo; said Sean Wallace, head of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals.</p>

<p>This proposal isn&rsquo;t new. State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, had tried each of the past two years to get the Legislature to approve the change, only to see his bill scuttled after being tagged as &ldquo;soft on crime.&rdquo;</p>

<p>Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, a former prosecutor, has led the fight against Cleveland&rsquo;s efforts. Biggs wants the focus in corrections reform to be on low-level offenders instead of those sentenced for 85 percent crimes.</p>

<p>Certainly there are many bad actors among the roughly 6,000 inmates serving time for 85 percent crimes. However, this change wouldn&rsquo;t apply to inmates serving life without parole, or those in prison for drug and human trafficking. And, the list of 85 percent crimes, which lawmakers have expanded through the years in their tough-on-crime efforts, now includes crimes that aren&rsquo;t violent in nature.</p>

<p>Fallin&rsquo;s plan has irked some prosecutors. However, it&rsquo;s in line with recommendations provided to the governor&rsquo;s office this spring by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council. That document noted that when the 85 percent law was passed, &quot;we understood it to mean offenders are eligible to earn credits to allow release after serving 85 percent of their sentences. That is what we began telling victims of violent crime. We later learned offenders were serving 92 percent of their sentences based on the manner in which credits were being applied. While all offenders may not earn release at 85 percent, we believe the law intended to allow that possibility.&rdquo;</p>

<p>Letting inmates who are sentenced for 85 percent crimes earn credits throughout their time in prison makes sense fiscally and otherwise. The corrections board should approve the change.</p>

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