OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- More than 80% of parole and commutation requests sent to Gov. Brad Henry have been granted during his first two years in office.
Henry's approvals have allowed 5,109 people to be released from their sentences in Oklahoma prisons, according to a study done by the Criminal Justice Center.
In contrast, former Gov. Frank Keating granted 9,106 paroles during his eight years in office -- 1,666 in his first two years.
Henry signed an average of 112 paroles per month in his first few months in office -- a drop of about 26 percent from Keating's average of 178 paroles per month in 2002.
"To date, the only criticism Governor Henry has received about his handling of paroles is that he rejects too many," said Paul Sund, the governor's communications director. "Statistics indicate Oklahoma's parole rate under Governor Henry is much lower than the national average and lower than every state in the region, including Texas."
Another reason Keating's numbers were lower in his first few years in office was because the Pardon and Parole Board was more conservative during that time, Parole Board Director Terry Jenks said.
Members of the parole board are appointed by the governor. Henry has appointed former Attorney General Susan Loving of Edmond; James Brown of McAlester and Clinton Johnson of Oklahoma City.
Board member Lynell Harkins was appointed by the state Supreme Court, and Richard Dugger was appointed by the Court of Criminal Appeals.
"The parole process is not a fast track," said K.C. Moon, director of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center. "There's a list of checks and balances."
Prisoner files are first reviewed by caseworkers at the Corrections Department, then reviewed again by investigators before the parole board receives a file. If an inmate is recommended for parole, the file then goes to the governor's office.
At its last meeting, the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission endorsed the elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences for "nonviolent" felonies and urged state legislators to increase funding for parole programs so inmates can be released at a faster rate.
For the second year in a row, the commission also has recommended the governor be taken out of the parole process -- a proposal the Legislature rejected last year.
Rep. Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City, recently talked about the case of Bradford Lagene McGee who was convicted in 1993 of five counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
He was paroled by Henry after serving one-third of the sentence and almost immediately violated parole.
Instead of returning to prison, he was sentenced to wearing an electronic monitoring device. On Oct. 23, 2004, McGee committed another robbery while wearing the electronic monitoring device.
Sund said the parole board investigator recommended McGee for parole because it was his first incarceration, he had compiled a good conduct record and earned his GED certificate.
"Even with the unanimous approval and strong recommendation from the parole board, Governor Henry demanded additional conditions on the parole before he would sign it," Sund said.
A random review of prisoners paroled by Henry by The Oklahoman shows that some have returned to prison for violating parole. In some instances, parolees had previous convictions.
Sund said Henry personally reviews each parole file that the state Pardon and Parole Board approves.
Attorney General Drew Edmondson, the state's top law enforcement officer, said the process is working.
"The governor's role in the parole process is well-defined," Edmondson said. "I am confident that Governor Henry carefully reviews each case and have every confidence in his ability to determine if parole is warranted."
Moon said parole is a better alternative than discharging prisoners after they complete their full sentence because it offers accountability and supervision.