The motive behind HB 2131 was Oklahoma’s prison overcrowding. According to Speaker Steele, “Our prisons are near capacity. Currently, if someone is convicted and considered a danger to society, there is virtually no place to put them.”
HB 2131 changed the default sentencing structure from consecutive to concurrent terms, enhanced eligibility for community service and GPS monitor sentencing, and reduced the Governor’s role in the parole process for non-violent offenders.
While the idea was good, the new law hit a snag last week when Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said HB 2131 was unconstitutional. Pruitt’s opinion states that it violates the Oklahoma Constitution for the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to grant parole without action by the governor. The statute provision that provided that, in cases involving nonviolent offenders, a parole recommendation by the Pardon and Parole Board is deemed approved if the governor does not take action on it within a 30-day period.
While an Attorney General’s opinion is not binding on state officials, it appears the legislature and the Governor will defer to Pruitt’s judgment and start over next session.
Oklahoma is the only state that requires the Governor to approve every parole after the Pardon and Parole Board submits a recommendation. That does seem unnecessary and redundant when you consider the Governor appoints the majority of the board. The Board is composed of five appointive members. Three are appointed by the Governor, one by the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and one by the Presiding Judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. The five members serve four year terms that run concurrent with the term of the Governor.
Like governors before her, Fallin supports the reforms in HB 2131 and was disappointed by Pruitt’s opinion. “It will be up to the legislature to once again look and see where they want to move from this point on, Fallin said. “I do support going to a vote of the people.”
State Senator Harry "Turn" Coates, (R-Seminole) has filed Senate Joint Resolution 46 that would remove the governor totally from the parole process- violent and non-violent offenders. Coates’ says it will allow the Governor to focus on the state's budget and other official business. If it passes both chambers, it would still have to be approved by Oklahoma voters.
"The Legislature took a step in the right direction this session passing House Bill 2131, but we need to do more to speed up the parole process and make it more efficient,” said "Turn" Coates, R-Seminole. “The Pardon and Parole Board is a group of highly qualified experts with backgrounds in criminal justice. Giving the Board complete control over the pardon and parole process will save the state money and allow the Governor to focus more time on her primary responsibilities, which are finding ways to strengthen the state’s economy, help attract new businesses to our state and improve the lives of our citizens.”
Coates' proposal goes too far by totally eliminating the governor from the process. The governor is the ‘elected’ representative of the people charged with specific duties- one of which is to deal with pardons and paroles. No appointed body should be granted that much power. While efficiency is a desired characteristic of government, accountability is more important.
Oklahoma’s prisons are being filled up with non-violent offenders. The Sooner state locks up more women per capita than any other state. More than two thirds of the women in Oklahoma prisons were convicted of nonviolent crimes (mostly drugs) and have children that become the responsibility of extended family or state taxpayers.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, about 20,000 Oklahomans are convicted of felonies annually. The current population in Oklahoma prisons is about 26,000- 60% of those who are there for nonviolent crimes.
Steele is on the right track by attempting to ease prison overcrowding. With the cost to Oklahoma taxpayers to lock up criminals now at over 600 million annually (almost 10% of the state budget), and growing this is an issue that demands immediate attention.