TULSA, Okla. — Because Oklahoma prisons have been considered hot spots for COVID, some inmates' families hoped for commutation, but the illness is also to blame for stalling that process.
The commutation process is lengthy and can be complicated, especially during a pandemic. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board are behind on almost 1,500 applications.
As inmates and staff work to keep others safe from COVID, there is still evidence the virus spreads in prisons. More than 7,000 inmates tested positive. Sixty-six cases are active, and the unofficial count of deaths is at 48. Those stats are on the state's corrections website.
“I really hope that through our work, we can help make change,” Felicity Rose said. “We can help get Oklahomans home to their families, especially during this pandemic.”
Rose works for a national advocacy organization called Forward. It focuses on broken criminal justice systems.
“Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country,” said Rose, and that commutation approvals plummeted during the pandemic.
The Forward team found that the pardon and parole board approved 33% fewer stage one commutation applications when compared to 2019, despite considering over 1,000 more applications.
“There is a process in place to make sure those applications are heard and given the attention that they require and deserve,” Tom Bates, director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, said, adding they are making sure the commutation process is done the right way and that district attorneys and victims have time to file objections.
The board is also playing catch-up on commutation applications.
“I came on board in this position in September of last year. Since then, we’ve been working on a pretty good backlog of commutation applications," Bates said.
Last month’s meeting was canceled because of the weather. In the upcoming March meeting, the board will review 229 applications from the February docket; 474 from the March docket, and 762 on a special docket.
“I feel like commutations are important because it gives individuals that are facing lengthy time an opportunity to have a second chance,” Felecia Jackson said.
Jackson’s husband, Eric Jackson, has a history of charges that include drug possession and conspiracy. Nine months passed before he was on a commutation docket. The average waiting time is six.
“I felt really blessed because it was something we had been praying for for a long time," Jackson said.
The next pardon and parole meeting on March 8 is slated to take four days.
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