By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Proponents of State Question 762 say it will save the state millions of dollars. Opponents say it will open the gates for those prisoners who need to serve their time.
State Question 762 modifies the power and authority of the governor and Pardon and Parole Board in the parole process for nonviolent offenders by removing the governor from the process.
“Letting the governor focus on parole recommendations for violent crimes is a critical component of Oklahoma’s recent progress to build a stronger, more effective criminal justice system,” said House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. “Approving this measure will generate tens of millions of dollars in savings that can be reinvested in initiatives that truly reduce and prevent crime. A vote for SQ 762 is a vote for a safer Oklahoma.”
The 2007 audit of the Department of Corrections found that removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders would save up to $40 million over the course of a decade because of the increased efficiencies and quicker processing of paroles.
“It is our hope that these savings can then be reinvested into strategies to aggressively reduce and prevent crime,” Steele said.
“The Legislature defines what offenses are nonviolent offenses and the Legislature may change that definition,” according to the ballot language
District Attorney Greg Mashburn of Norman strongly opposes the measure and supports a “no” vote.
“I am very much opposed to 762. It removes all accountability to the pardon and parole process,” Mashburn said. “By taking the governor out, it allows the Pardon and Parole Board to parole people straight to the streets with no checks and balances. The Pardon and Parole Board is not accountable to the people of the state of Oklahoma. For instance, if a parole board member is from, let’s say Clinton, and they want to release someone to the streets of Idabel, they’re not accountable to anyone in Idabel. They don’t have to answer to the people of Idabel. And we know, based on recent experience with the parole board, they’re not acting very responsible with their choices. They’re putting people on the docket that aren’t even eligible for parole. The only way we’ve been able to stop that is through the governor’s office.”
Proponents of the measure strongly disagree.
If voters approve this change, dollars would be saved and the process would move more smoothly, according to Dr. Susan F. Sharp, L. J. Semrod Presidential Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma.
“The decisions about non-violent cases would be made by individuals with more experience, more knowledge of risk assessment,” Sharp said. “The governor would be able to focus attention on the more serious crimes.”
Sharp supports a “yes” vote on this measure.
“I believe this change is needed because we are the only state that requires the governor to approve every single parole,” she said. “This is a time-consuming process, and it means that our prisons just keep getting fuller. Parole is an important public safety issue, and by putting the governor as the final point of accountability, we make it into a political issue rather than a corrections and public safety issue.”
Mashburn said releasing prisoners is not the answer, however.
“There are other things that can be done, besides just opening the doors,” Mashburn said. “Oklahoma is one of the only states that has a earned credit system and a parole board on top of that. So what you do is have all these people earning their time down.”
Sharp said because parole — even in nonviolent offenses — is a political “hot potato,” the current governor only approves about half of the cases that the Pardon and Parole Board has approved and sent forward to her office.
“This results in duplication of effort, simply wasted time and wasted money,” Sharp said. “There are also other reasons why it would be more expedient to remove non-violent offenders from the requirement of governor approval. Because the process essentially takes twice as long, offenders may actually serve out their time and be released directly to the streets rather than to supervision.
“The focus of Justice Reinvestment is to put the dollars saved into areas that would improve public safety,” she said.
“The experts estimate we could save up to $40 million in corrections costs over the next ten years that could then be redirected to promote a safer Oklahoma,” Sharp said. “Under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Oklahoma, we are directing the Department of Corrections to supervise prisoners for nine months following release. However, we do not have money to pay for that supervision.”
But Mashburn said when district attorneys agreed to the Justice Reinvestment Program, funding was assured.
“Now everyone has to be supervised for at least nine months,” Mashburn said. “There won’t be people flat timing anymore for discharging with earned credits. When we sat down at the table, they said ‘there is money there... we promise we’ll get the (Justice Reinvestment) program funded.”
Mashburn said he is frustrated with the move to open prison doors.
Overcrowding is not the heart of the issue because private companies would come in and build more prisons if that is needed, he said.
“It is absolutely not true that the reasoning is to monitor people better and save money,” Mashburn said. “If that is their true, ultimate goal, we have made other suggestions that would make that possible and they have declined to initiate any of them.
“They just want people out of prison, period,” he said. “That is the liberal think tanks who don’t want any accountability for people who commit crimes.”
The League of Women Voters disagrees. The League supports this legislation.
“The State of Oklahoma will join all other states in the nation by removing the governor from the parole process for non-violent offenders,” the League said in its position statement. “It will reduce costs by eliminating delays and will reduce the strain on the parole system by making the early parole process for non-violent offenders more effective and efficient.”
The League agrees the change would “allow the governor to focus attention on parole cases that pose a greater threat to public safety.
“The League of Women Voters of Oklahoma has long supported the complete removal of the governor from the parole process and sees this measure as a step in the right direction.”
Proponents agree the change would save money.
While Sharp said there is “always the possibility for unforeseen consequences,” other states have taken this action to deal more efficiently with crime.
“Oklahoma locks up prisoners for far longer than most other states do for the same crimes,” Sharp said. “Our fixation on being punitive has reached the point of diminishing returns. Instead of making our state safer, we have been making it more dangerous.”
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