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Governor’s sentencing policy change draws some opposition

Jul 14, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

The Oklahoma Board of Corrections decided to hold off on making a decision on the early prison release policy change requested by Gov. Mary Fallin until the issue could be studied further.
A governor’s order recommending changes in sentencing policy could result in the immediate release of 190 serious offenders from Oklahoma prisons.
By the end of the year, that number would grow to as many as 400, said Robert Patton, director of the state Corrections Department.
On average, these offenders would be leaving six months earlier than would be the case without the policy change. Once out, they would not be under parole supervision.

The Oklahoma Board of Corrections decided to hold off on making a decision on the early prison release policy change requested by Gov. Mary Fallin until the issue could be studied further.

by Rick Green Modified: July 11, 2015 at 10:20 pm •  Published: July 12, 2015

A governor’s order recommending changes in sentencing policy could result in the immediate release of 190 serious offenders from Oklahoma prisons.

By the end of the year, that number would grow to as many as 400, said Robert Patton, director of the state Corrections Department.

On average, these offenders would be leaving six months earlier than would be the case without the policy change. Once out, they would not be under parole supervision.

Patton stressed these inmates comprise a small portion of the 29,000 offenders now incarcerated across Oklahoma.

They have served 85 percent of their sentence and have accumulated good behavior credits.

Many of them would be older inmates who have “aged out” of a life of crime.

“You get older, you get wiser, you get a little bit more lazy and you just don’t have the energy to go out and do stupid things,” Patton said.

The director said that 22 percent of offenders released from Oklahoma prisons return to criminal behavior within three years of gaining freedom.

That rate is 20 percent for prisoners who have been sentenced for a series of serious and violent crimes that require the inmate to serve 85 percent of the court-imposed sentence. Under present policy, corrections officials have required that no early release credits can be accumulated by these inmates

But the governor says the law only requires that inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence. They should be able to accumulate the credits throughout their sentence.

Under present policies, many of the inmates end up serving 90 to 93 percent of their sentences.

State prison facilities are at 118 percent of capacity now. The policy change could help reduce overcrowding, and ultimately save millions of dollars, Patton said.

On Thursday, the state Board of Corrections decided to hold off on making a decision on the policy change until the issue could be studied further.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater objects to the policy change, citing public safety concerns.

Instead of releasing serious offenders to the street without supervision once they serve 85 percent of their sentence, they should go through the parole process, he contends.

If they win parole, they would be supervised by a parole officer once released.

"Even older offenders we may assume have aged out of a life of crime, they still need the ability to have someone assist and monitor them as they reintegrate into the community," he said.

Prater also questioned the timing of Fallin's memo. Efforts to change the policy along the lines she suggests have failed in the Legislature.

"This change, in the middle of the summer, when you are more than half a year away from the Legislature coming back and being able to fix this issue, why now after decades of the Department of Corrections interpreting this law this way?"

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