More notable Oklahoma Senate forwards to House: Medical parole reform, OHLAP expansion to juniors

Staff Report
OKLAHOMA CITY – March 8-12 was a busy work week at the State Legislature. 
Under the dome, the Senate sent to the lower chamber a pair policy objectives aiming to ameliorate underlying social challenges for certain groups in the state.   

A measure reforming criteria for applicants seeking medical parole received full Senate approval Wednesday. Senate Bill 320, by Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, provides for the medically frail and vulnerable to receive consideration in medical parole proceedings, also known as compassionate release.

“Our prisons are at 107 percent capacity. In addition, Oklahoma’s prison population is aging quickly with many over 65 — a large portion of that group has medical conditions that prevent them from being able to take care of themselves on a daily basis. This puts them in danger, causes more work for already understaffed prisons and is a tremendous cost to the state,” Garvin said. 

“This is fiscally responsible legislation that creates commonsense guidelines for who can apply for compassionate relief parole. Once an individual qualifies to apply, they still must go through a board review to determine if they should be released on parole. This is a much-needed change for these frail individuals and our prison system.”

S.B. 320 defines medically frail as someone who has a medical condition that prevents them from performing two or more activities of daily living independently. It defines medically vulnerable as someone with one or more medical conditions that would make them more likely to contract an illness or disease while incarcerated that could lead to death or cause them to become medically frail. 
The measure specifies the medical conditions that place an individual in the medically vulnerable category.

“Oklahoma’s current medical parole statute has been interpreted to mean that only those near death or dying can be considered for early release, leaving behind a large population of individuals with chronic, debilitating illnesses who are no longer a threat to public safety,” Garvin said.

According to DOC, only 12 people in Oklahoma’s prison system were granted medical parole in 2020.
A medical determination will remain a three-step process with a prison medical provider and DOC’s director and medical director all agreeing on the assessment. The DOC director would then request that a person be added to the medical parole docket before the Pardon and Parole Board (PPB).

Garvin said she worked with law enforcement, district attorney’s and judges along with DOC officials in drafting the bill. 
S.B. 320 will next be considered in the House.

Another legislative press release touched on another policy objective to improve life for a targeted population. 
Narrative in a release from Senate staff related that “Hundreds of Oklahoma students complete their college degree each year thanks to the financial assistance provided them through the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP), a scholarship program that provides free tuition to state colleges and universities for certain qualifying students.” 

Under current legal provisions, the release sent to CapitolBeatOK and other state news organizatios pointed out, “students must be an Oklahoma resident, have a federally adjusted annual gross family income of $55,000 or less, and enroll in OHLAP in the Eighth, Ninth, or Tenth Grade.” 

Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, wants to further expand the program by allowing homeschooled 16-year-olds or public and private school students to enroll as juniors, which he hopes to accomplish with Senate Bill 132 that passed unanimously out of the Senate late last Tuesday (March 9).

“While some students know at a younger age that they want to go to college, for others it’s a decision made later in high school. OHLAP was created to ensure more students have the opportunity to get a college degree regardless of their financial situation, and Senate Bill 132 is an effort to help those students who decide to pursue a higher education their junior year,” Bullard said. 

“The program isn’t currently being fully utilized, so kids are missing out on this incredible scholarship opportunity, and we have to do all we can to make sure their dreams of getting a college degree come true. I’m grateful for the overwhelming support in the Senate, and I hope the House joins us in further helping Oklahoma’s students by expanding Oklahoma’s Promise,” Ballard said. 
There are currently about 30,000 high school students enrolled in the program and around 15,000 students attending college on an OHLAP scholarship. Bullard believes that allowing students to join the program their junior year will help increase participation in the free tuition program.

As a result of Senate passage, the measure now goes to the House of Representatives where Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, is serving as the author.