By Clifton Adcock, Oklahoma Watch

Pushing to reduce prison overcrowding, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has quietly changed its policies to give early releases to greater numbers of violent and sex offenders, according to agency documents obtained by Oklahoma Watch.

The department is doing so by relaxing policies that determine which types of inmates can receive early-release credits, when those credits can be given, and how many credits offenders can receive, corrections department records show.

Previously, for example, inmates convicted of violent or sex crimes, such as murder or robbery, who lost early-release credits because of “misconducts” in prison were not eligible for restored credits. Now they are.

These inmates are among the more than 1,500 offenders, convicted of violent or non-violent crimes, that the corrections department has released since March using restored credits.

At least dozens of those prisoners have since been arrested for other crimes, including murder, bank robbery and sexual assault, according to a check of court and county-jail records in a sampling of counties. One prisoner charged with bank robbery in June had been denied parole in 2012 and 2013.

Some law enforcement officials say the stepped-up early releases are putting public safety at risk, but corrections officials maintain that's not the case.

Officials have said publicly that accelerated releases of inmates through restored credits did not represent a policy change, only a more efficient use of existing policy. But Oklahoma Watch's review of copies of department memos and a comparison of old and new policies show the agency granted exceptions to policies, then revised the policies, to enable the early releases. The DOC has revised its policies on restored credits four times this year.

Department memos and other records show the Corrections Department made other key changes to increase releases of inmates:

  • The agency doubled the maximum number of certain early-release credits that can be earned by or restored to inmates.
  • The DOC altered a policy to allow credits to be earned for inmates serving “split life sentences,” which typically require inmates to spend 20 to 30 years in prison and the rest of their life on probation. The change was retroactive, meaning credits were awarded going back to the first day of incarceration. One sex offender was given 12 years worth of credits and released on Dec. 10.
  • The department reversed a policy that banned restoration of credits to inmates who are in a punishment period following a misconduct in prison. Now inmates can regain credits within those periods -- six months to two years, depending on the infraction -- and be released early. That includes inmates with violations for escape, assaulting a staff member, rioting or possessing a weapon.
  • Officials decided that a state law banning inmates convicted of drug trafficking from getting credits does not apply to those convicted of aggravated drug trafficking, a worse crime. Aggravated means an additional factor was involved, such as a large amount of drugs – 1,000 pounds vs. 25 pounds of marijuana, for example -- or a prior criminal record.

The changes were part of an effort to reduce overcrowding in prisons. In August, two-thirds of prisons were officially over capacity, in part because about 3,000 state inmates had been moved from county jails into prisons. Prisons also were full because efforts to reduce incarceration, such as a Justice Reinvestment Initiative offering alternative treatment for nonviolent offenders, had stalled, advocates of the law said.

Department records reveal a sense of urgency to get inmates out of prison.

A March 10 memo sent by Ed Evans, associate corrections director, to all facility heads had an attachment saying registration paperwork for sex and violent offenders whose credits were restored must be “completed immediately and forwarded to the Sex Offender Registration Unit so that their release is delayed no longer than necessary.

“Due to the short notice, staff will need to assist the offenders in contacting family and/or friends to arrange their transportation home,” the attachment said.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he's concerned that accelerated releases are causing a danger to the public.

“I think what you're going to see within a year, maybe less, is a spike in crime by the offenders released to the street,” said Prater. “They've shown they can't behave behind the walls. They're certainly not going to behave on the outside without supervision.”

Corrections Director Robert Patton maintained the releases are not a threat to public safety. The department is simply fulfilling the law for early-release credits approved by the legislature, he said.

“Am I going to tell you that everyone I release will never come back to prison again? Of course not,” Patton said. “But what I can tell you is that the only way the system can be effective is if there's a way to earn (early-release credits) back.” It is a “carrot and stick” approach, he said.

Gov. Mary Fallin told Oklahoma Watch, “There has to be a fine balance between having the system and protecting the public … If there's an incentive for an inmate to behave because they have the opportunity to earn good time credits, that certainly helps correctional officers and employees with those inmates.”