Lawmakers Discuss Changes In Parole System

Thursday, November 29th 2007, 3:51 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - With Oklahoma's prison system bursting at the seams and commanding a nearly half-billion dollar annual budget, state lawmakers on Thursday discussed the possibility of removing the governor from the process of granting parole to Oklahoma inmates. Corrections officials, prosecutors and those involved in prison ministry were among those who testified Thursday before the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Subcommittee.

"The criminal justice system in Oklahoma is broke, and it needs to be fixed badly," said John Pearson, a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma's Commission on Prison Ministry. "Removing the governor from the parole process isn't going to fix that, but it's a very necessary and important first step."

Oklahoma is currently the only state in the nation in which the governor must sign off on every inmate released on parole. Once an inmate is eligible for parole, he or she must first be approved by the state's five-member Pardon and Parole Board, which then forwards their recommendations to the governor for final approval.

Because the governor's role in the parole process is specified in the Oklahoma Constitution, lawmakers would have to first approve sending the issue to a vote of the people.

Pearson said that while the state budgets for common education, higher education and career technology grew an average of about 100% over the last 20 years, the budget for the Department of Corrections grew nearly 250%.

"I am only a citizen and a taxpayer, but in my opinion it is very poor public policy for the state of Oklahoma to grow its ability to incarcerate citizens at a rate over twice that of its ability to educate its citizens," he said.

But Suzanne McClain Atwood, the executive coordinator of Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, said changing the parole process as part of an effort to help ease the prison budget is a bad idea. She said prosecutors generally support the idea of having the governor provide and extra check and balance to the system, giving crime victims another opportunity to protest a parole.

Before removing the governor from the parole process, Atwood said prosecutors want to make sure crime victims have plenty of notice and opportunity to protest paroles and that there is some method to determine which offenders pose the greatest threat to society.

"We would be opposed, at this point in time, from removing the governor until some of those safeguards are addressed," she said.

Pearson was among those who argued Thursday that the governor should be removed from the process because of political concerns, noting that fewer paroles are granted in an election year. Also, the average number of days that a parole recommendation sits on the governor's desk has increased since Henry took office from 17 in 2001 under Gov. Frank Keating to 76 this year, said K.C. Moon, the director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center. Paul Sund, a spokesman for Gov. Brad Henry, said that while Henry sees merits on both sides of the argument of removing the governor from the process, he defended Henry's record of granting paroles and the time it takes him to review a recommendation.

"Inadvertently releasing someone who doesn't deserve to get out is a public safety concern," Sund said. "If it takes a little while longer to do due diligence on a parole file, he'll take the time."

Sund also downplayed the fact that fewer paroles are granted in an election year, arguing that each case is different and needs to be reviewed on its individual merits.
Henry ultimately approved 84% of the inmates recommended for parole by the Pardon and Parole Board in 2006 - a total of 1,139 inmates, according to statistics from the Criminal Justice Resource Center. The board itself rejected close to 70% of the applicants.

Many inmates complete their sentence during the parole process, and hundreds of others who are eligible elect to complete their sentence rather than face the strict supervision of parole, Moon said.