Oklahoma parole ballot issue drawing opposition

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Opposition is mounting against a proposed amendment to Oklahoma's Constitution that would grant more authority to the state Pardon and Parole Board by removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders.

Supporters say the change will reduce the strain on the state's parole system by making it more efficient, eliminate delays in implementing parole recommendations and cut incarceration costs.

But the measure, State Question 762, has come under scrutiny since Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater accused the Pardon and Parole Board in August of operating a secret parole docket and granting early parole to certain state prison inmates, including some who were not eligible for it.

Within a week, Gov. Mary Fallin asked the board to change some of its policies and practices. And a statement provided by the governor's office to The Associated Press indicates the parole fracas has forced Fallin to back away from her earlier support of the measure.

"In the interest of public safety and the wellbeing of Oklahoma, the governor's office should continue to provide this oversight until additional reforms and changes can be made at the Pardon and Parole Board," Fallin said.

Last year, Fallin signed legislation overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature to modify the governor's role in the parole process and speed it up for non-violent offenders. The legislation did not go into effect after the Attorney General's Office ruled it was unconstitutional.

Oklahoma prosecutors are also weighing in against the proposal. Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn, president of the state District Attorneys Council, said removing the governor from parole decisions "would be a terrible mistake."

"There would be absolutely no accountability for those who are tasked with releasing criminals from our prisons," Mashburn said in a statement. "It is imperative to keep the governor in this process as someone who takes this task very seriously."

The parole proposal will be decided by voters in the Nov. 6 general election. It is one of six ballot issues that voters will consider in the statewide election, including a measure that would limit affirmative action programs.

Currently, Oklahoma is the only state in the nation that requires the governor to sign off on every inmate parole recommendation, even recommendations involving nonviolent offenders.

An audit of Oklahoma's prison system conducted five years ago by MGT of America, Inc., found that the state's parole rates were significantly lower than other states. It recommended that the governor be involved in the parole process only for certain heinous crimes and that routine parole decisions be the sole responsibility of the Pardon and Parole Board.

Earlier this year, the Legislature adopted a resolution that placed State Question 762 on the general election ballot. If approved, it would give the board -- in place of the governor -- authority to grant parole to nonviolent offenders. The governor would still be required to sign off on parole recommendations for violent offenders, including those required to serve 85 percent of their sentence before they are eligible for parole.

A legislative fiscal analysis of the proposal found that the measure will release nonviolent parolees sooner and eliminate the cost of housing the offenders while they await the governor's approval.

About 1,200 nonviolent offenders are recommended for parole each year by the Pardon and Parole Board. It typically takes about 90 days before an offender recommended for parole is approved by the governor and released. The ballot measure would cut that time to about 30 days and create a savings of about $3.3 million a year, the analysis said.

Supporters, including Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele and the League of Women Voters, say the measure will save money and allow the governor to focus attention on parole recommendations involving violent offenders that are a greater threat to public safety.

"I do think this is good policy," said Steele, R-Shawnee. If the issue passes, the governor can devote more resources to studying recommendations involving violent offenders, he said.

"I think it is important to keep the governor involved in the process for violent offenders," Steele said.

But opponents say Prater's accusations about the Pardon and Parole Board have raised concerns about expanding its authority.

"Some of the recent actions that the board has taken kind of gave the DAs some pause. It made them have some concerns with the process," said Trent Baggett, assistant executive coordinator of the District Attorneys Council, which last month urged voters to defeat the measure.

Among other things, Prater claims the board has considered early release for inmates who are not eligible.

The prosecutor said a woman found guilty in 2008 of manslaughter in a man's death was required to serve 85 percent of her 10-year sentence, or eight and one-half years,

before she would be eligible for parole. Yet, the victim's family was notified she was on the Pardon and Parole Board's docket in July -- four years early.

Baggett said the proposal would impact offenders convicted of almost all drug crimes as well as second-degree burglary and white-collar crimes that are classified as nonviolent.

"It's important to remember what is included in nonviolent offenses," he said.

Fallin said she still supports the concept of removing the governor from the parole process to streamline the procedure for offenders with no history of violence. But she said the ballot measure would define non-violent offenders only by their current offense and would not require consideration of past violent behavior.

"Since taking office, I have denied parole for 437 offenders who would be considered `nonviolent' under the terms of State Question 762, keeping them off our streets and out of our communities," she said.

The executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, Terry Jenks, said the five-member board has taken no position on the ballot measure.

"They have kind of remained neutral on the issue," Jenks said. "That's a public policy issue that the voters will decide in November."

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