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Oklahoma Parole Board grants few approvals

Jan 31, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Following a complete turnover of its members, the state Pardon and Parole Board has clamped down on parole recommendations.In January, the board considered 322 cases and recommended 30 for parole — a rate of about 9 percent. Eighty percent of those recommended were serving time for drug-related offenses; only one had a murder conviction. A year ago, the board recommended parole for approximately 36 percent of eligible inmates.

By Jennifer Palmer
January 31, 2015

Following a complete turnover of its members, the state Pardon and Parole Board has clamped down on parole recommendations.

In January, the board considered 322 cases and recommended 30 for parole — a rate of about 9 percent. Eighty percent of those recommended were serving time for drug-related offenses; only one had a murder conviction.

A year ago, the board recommended parole for approximately 36 percent of eligible inmates.

Three of the four current board members have ties to the Oklahoma City Police Department or former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy. Those three were appointed in recent months by Gov. Mary Fallin.

The result is a board that is stacked against inmates vying for clemency, some defense attorneys say.

The new members include Robert “Brett” Macy, a retired Oklahoma City police lieutenant, whose father is the late Bob Macy, longtime Oklahoma County district attorney; Patricia High, an Oklahoma City attorney and former prosecutor under Bob Macy who is married to an Oklahoma City police sergeant; and Vanessa Price, a consultant focusing on criminal justice alternative programs and herself a former Oklahoma City police sergeant.

High and Price were appointed by Fallin in 2014, and Macy joined them in January, along with Tom Gillert, a retired district judge for Tulsa County. Gillert was selected by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which is also responsible for filling a fifth seat, which is currently vacant.

Jari Askins, interim executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, said lower release statistics are consistent with a new board.

“They must develop a ‘feel’ for the process,” she said.

The board is also seeing fewer good candidates due to a revision of the state Corrections Department’s early-release credits policy. Offenders are earning so many behavior credits, some are waiving their parole hearing, believing they have a better chance at being released under their original sentence without conditions, such as mental health treatment, drug testing or education, Askins said.

“The result is that the offenders remaining on the parole docket are often violent offenders or are nonviolent offenders with bad behavior records,” she said.

‘A stacked board’

Previous board members have included ranchers, bankers and pastors, as well as lawyers and law enforcement. Those board members were able to look at a prisoner’s overall life, said Irven Box, an attorney who has represented clients in parole hearings for decades.

“Right now, it appears we kind of have a stacked board,” Box said. “I can’t foresee many people getting parole with the composition of the board as it is.”

He said while he likes and respects the board members, having a prosecution-heavy board is unfair to the inmates. Majority approval is needed for a prisoner to pass to the next stage.

Attorney Debra Hampton, whose practice focuses on inmates pursuing parole, said she is disappointed the board isn’t giving more convicts a chance, especially in light of prison overcrowding and the governor’s recent push for criminal justice reform and alternatives to prison.

“These inmates have been in a while and they have proven they know how to handle themselves,” Hampton said. “These are the people I think ought to be given more review.”

One of Hampton’s clients, Robin Ratliff, was convicted of second-degree murder in Rogers County for the 1993 fatal shooting of a 13-year-old classmate when Ratliff was 14 years old. Ratliff told a parole investigator she didn’t know the gun was loaded when she pointed it at the classmate and pulled the trigger. She is serving life in prison.

Ratliff, 35, has been recommended for clemency numerous times, but has yet to receive a governor’s approval. This time, she had parole denied at the first stage, which is before an inmate appears via video conference.

“They wouldn’t even give her a second review,” Hampton said.

The governor’s approval rate for paroles has decreased in recent years, too, some of which is attributed to changes in the parole procedure for nonviolent offenders. State voters in 2012 approved a constitutional amendment that removed the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders, giving the board the final say. Fallin was opposed to the change.

The governor still makes the final decision on parole for offenders convicted of certain violent crimes.

The result has been far fewer cases to decide, with a smaller percentage approved. According to data provided by the governor’s office, Fallin considered 1,184 cases in 2011, and approved 49 percent. In 2012, she granted parole to 37 percent of the 1,368 offenders.

In 2013, after the constitutional amendment went into effect, Fallin considered just 355 cases and approved 19 percent. Last year, she paroled 17 percent of the 116 eligible offenders.

Oklahoma is one of a few states that require its governor’s approval for parole.

Former board criticized

The former board faced criticism from prosecutors for being too lenient and not giving victims’ families enough notification about hearings. The board members were also accused in misdemeanor charges in 2013 with Open Meeting Act violations, but the charges were later dropped.

Mike Fields, district attorney for Garfield, Blaine, Canadian, Grant and Kingfisher counties, in July accused the Pardon and Parole Board of having an anti-victim and anti-district attorney bias.

Fields said he was especially concerned by the number of murderers being approved for parole by the previous board, but that the new board seems to have set things “back on track.”

Askins, the state’s former lieutenant governor, was named interim director of the agency in August.

The agency has a budget of $2.46 million and a staff of 29, down from 42 in 2009.

Askins said she is working with the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services to improve the agency’s record-keeping. Currently, board members’ ballots are entered into four systems after each meeting. They consider hundreds of cases per month.

She is also working to sync the pardon and parole system with the Victim Information and Notification Everyday database, a public notification service provided by the state attorney general’s office. Violent offenders are automatically reviewed for parole every three years; nonviolent offenders are reviewed annually.