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Most Oklahoma inmates granted early release since March have stayed out of trouble

Oct 10, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

Only two of the nearly 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the state Corrections Department since March have returned to prison after they were set free, an agency spokesman told The Oklahoman.

By Andrew Knittle | October 8, 2014  http://m.newsok.com/article/5349523

Only two of the nearly 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the state Corrections Department since March have returned to prison after they were set free, an agency spokesman told The Oklahoman.

Santajuan M. Stepney was released from prison in March after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana.

By mid-July, he was back in prison, this time sentenced to two years for beating his wife in Canadian County.

 

Stepney, 31, was among about 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the Corrections Department after they had good-behavior credits restored through the once-obscure Earned Credits program. The releases in question began in March, according to the agency.

 

A state lawmaker recently questioned the program, saying restoration of good-behavior credits and early release is in the name of saving money, while Corrections Department officials have defended its expanded use.

 

According to court records, Stepney slapped his wife in the early hours of May 2. His wife told officers the convict then grabbed her face and poked her left eye so hard that it caused a bruise.

 

His wife filed for divorce a month later, records show; the case is pending in Canadian County District Court.

 

Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said Stepney and inmate Brian Harvey, who was granted early release in March, are the only members of the group who’ve returned to prison since being set free under the Earned Credits program.

 

Harvey, who has a history of stealing cars in Oklahoma, was released March 31, Massie said.

 

Court records show Harvey, 31, was arrested after he led Tulsa police on a chase through city streets.

 

Before his release from state prison in March, Harvey had been behind bars since May 2013 and had served less than half of a two-year sentence for stealing cars.

 

After his July 7 arrest in Tulsa for joyriding, Harvey was convicted in district court of possession of a stolen car and was back in state prison by September. He’d been out for roughly six months.

Last week, Rep. Aaron Stiles told The Oklahoman he believes Robert Patton, who was hired as the Corrections Department’s executive director earlier this year, is directing staff to release inmates by restoring the good behavior credits that had been lost due to infractions while behind bars.

 

Stiles said Patton is doing so to save money as the cash-strapped prison system continues to struggle with tight budgets and overcrowded prisons.

 

The lawmaker said “several” Corrections Department employees have contacted him about the mass release of inmates with good behavior credits restored. He said some of the employees, who feared speaking openly, “made recommendations that certain people not be released, but they get overruled by upper level DOC administration.”

 

“It is all about saving money,” Stiles said last week. “They had 1,800 inmates in county backup. So how do you make room for 1,800 prisoners? Release 1,800 convicts early.”

 

The Earned Credits program has been around about 20 years, officials say, but it’s never been as widely used as it is now. Essentially, the program allows inmates to have good-behavior credits restored if they’ve been lost as a result of misconduct.

 

The program does not apply to inmates who are required to serve a minimum amount of their sentence, such as 85 percent crimes like rape, murder, and many sex crimes.

 

Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said increased use of the program isn’t all about saving money. She said it’s part of a series of changes made by Patton, and that those changes will continue in the future.

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