In what has been billed as the largest single-day prisoner commutation in the history of the United States, the state of Oklahoma erased the remaining sentences of 462 inmates in November 2019. This mass commutation of state inmates effectively eliminates nearly 2000 collective years’ worth of prison sentences. Faced with severe overcrowding and known as the most incarcerated state in the nation, Oklahoma voters and the state Legislature took concrete steps to address the problem. After the mass commutation, Oklahoma’s prison population dropped by 1.7 percent.

Oklahoma’s Road to Commutation

Oklahoma’s path toward commuting prison sentences began in 2016 when two ballot initiatives to reclassify certain non-violent crimes was passed by state voters. Referred to as State Questions (SQs) on the ballot, the initiatives were widely supported by many organizations and by voters alike. Passed overwhelmingly by voters were:

  • SQ 780, which reclassified simple drug possession in the state as a misdemeanor rather than as a felony in an effort to reduce the number of non-violent criminals receiving prison sentences. The initiative also reduced the threshold of value for certain property crimes, making many of those misdemeanors rather than felonies as well.
  • SQ 781, an initiative that earmarks the cost savings afforded by SQ 780 to be distributed to Oklahoma’s 77 counties. This money is to be used to invest in incarceration alternatives for non-violent criminals, including drug treatment and intervention programs as well as expanded mental health services. It was estimated that the cost savings of SQ 780 would be $7-10 million in Fiscal Year 2018.

While these initiatives represented significant changes to those facing long, life-changing sentences as a result of arrests for simple drug possession, the Oklahoma State Legislature took an additional step. In a surprising move, the Legislature, with the backing of Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, made the reclassification retroactive, even allowing people to expunge old possession felonies and making more than 800 of the state’s prisoners eligible for commutation of their sentences. This bipartisan bill was entitled HB 1269, and it set the stage for November’s mass commutation of 462 state inmates.

A Response to High Incarceration Rates

According to a study compiled by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, simple drug possession was the leading driver for the state’s high incarceration rate. In a period encompassing fiscal years 2005-2015, nearly 18,000 prison sentences averaging 19 months were imposed on those convicted of simple drug possession. This had the effect of grossly overcrowding the state’s prison system and led the state to become the leading incarcerated state in the U.S., with over 1 percent of its population behind bars.

Other states are exploring similar initiatives to reduce prison overcrowding. It is expected that Oklahoma’s experience will serve as a model for prison systems throughout the country.

Overcrowding: Plaguing Prisons Across the United States

It is no secret that the United States leads industrialized nations in the number of people incarcerated in prisons. Approximately 2.1 million people are currently housed in the nation’s prisons – prisons that in many cases were not designed for the sheer numbers of inmates.

Prison overcrowding has led to significant challenges for corrections officials and inmates alike. An increase in violent crimes within prisons has resulted in the injuries of thousands of inmates. A significant number have even lost their lives. The spread of infectious diseases has only been aggravated by crowded prison conditions. Together, these factors have led numerous prison-rights organizations to call for a sweeping overhaul of prison systems throughout the U.S.

Prison reform has consisted of reducing overcrowding through commutation of sentences, as seen in Oklahoma’s recent move, as well as in releasing prisoners ahead of the completion of their sentences. The state of California was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to release more than 30,000 prisoners to reduce severe overcrowding, which was determined to be inhumane. Other states have expanded the construction of new prisons or adding wings to existing facilities. Despite these measures, prisons continue to face deplorable conditions, putting the health and safety of thousands of inmates at risk. Until sweeping prison reform takes place across the nation, these stopgap measures will only serve to stem the tide. Thankfully, many organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union are pushing for comprehensive prison reform as well as the reclassification of certain non-violent offenses. With their support and with the work of state legislatures, the U.S. can eventually conquer overcrowded prisons.

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