State Question 762, limiting governor’s role in pardons and paroles, draws critical scrutiny

OKLAHOMA CITY – Advocates of State Question 762 – – a constitutional amendment limiting the governor’s involvement in the parole process to decisions involving violent offenders — were startled with a surprising curveball from Governor Mary Fallin, who announced opposition to the measure just days ago.  

In wake of Fallin’s words and scattered recent opposition, legislative co-authors and supporters of S. Q. 762 on Wednesday reasserted support for the ballot measure.

One of the proposals referred to the electorate by legislative action, the issue faces a voter verdict in November.

State Sen. Josh Brecheen, a Coalgate Republican, told CapitolBeatOK, “Focusing the governor’s parole responsibilities solely on violent offenders will save tens of millions of dollars currently lost to nonviolent parole delays that can instead be used for initiatives that truly reduce and prevent crime.

“Parole board members will still have every offender’s entire criminal history provided to them under this reform, just as they do today. They have ample facts before them to make their decisions, just as voters have ample facts before them showing that this is a proven, smart on crime, fiscally conservative reform that deserves support.”
The proposed amendment is one aspect of the historic “justice reinvestment” initiative ( sponsored by Rep. Kris Steele, the Shawnee Republican serving as House Speaker and co-sponsor, with Brecheen, of the constitutional proposal.

Limiting the governor’s involvement to parole decisions involving violent offenders would save several million dollars a year, advocates say. The “reinvestment” designation comes from the anticipated policy – and funding — shift away from incarceration of non-violent offenders in Oklahoma, which leads the nation in female incarceration and is third in male incarceration. 

Concerning S.Q. 762, Steele told CapitolBeatOK, “This was good policy when the governor signed it into law last year, and it remains so today.”

Oklahoma is the only state in the nation where the chief executive plays a role in the parole decisions touching nonviolent offenders. Steele said, “Voters can confidently support this state question knowing that it is a nationally-accepted best practice that can serve as a foundation for further improvements to the parole process.” 

The measure seems popular as the election nears — and has organized support through a group called “Citizens for a Safer Oklahoma” — bumps in the road slowed its momentum recently. 

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater is investigating the Pardon and Parole Board for, in some instances, considering commutations of prisoners without legally sufficient disclosure in required public notices of regular meetings.

Scrutiny given the board’s so-called “secret docket” is ongoing from District Attorney Prater, and Steele said he shared Prater’s concerns about the board’s past practices.

Nothing in that investigation conflicts with the provisions of the ballot question. Strengthened transparency policies, advance posting of details for all pardon and parole proceedings, increased use of technology in assessing risk and clearer definitions of violent vs. nonviolent offenders are all matters of policy development within reach under existing law, and possible under the proposed amendment.

Sketchy information in news stories noting Gov. Fallin’s announced opposition garnered wide attention over the last few days, but provided few details. In response to a request this week from CapitolBeatOK, Fallin provided more information in this statement:

“As governor, I have been entrusted by the citizens of Oklahoma to serve as a safeguard in the pardon and parole process.  I remain supportive of the general concept of removing the governor from the pardon and parole process in order to streamline the procedure for criminals with no history of violence. However, recent events have led me to believe now is not the right time for the governor’s office to be removed from its oversight role. …

“It appears State Question 762 would define non-violent offenders only by their current offense and would not mandate the consideration of past violent behavior.  Since taking office, I have denied parole for 437 offenders, who would be considered ‘non-violent’ under the terms of State Question 762, keeping them off our streets and out of our communities.

“In the interest of public safety and the well being 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. Therefore, I do not support State Question 762. My office will continue to work with the Pardon and Parole Board, the legislature and the legal and law enforcement communities to pursue reforms that will deliver efficiencies while protecting public safety.”

The state District Attorneys Council, an influential group, decided recently to oppose S.Q. 762, contending the governor should remain involved in parole decisions for nonviolent offenders. 

In the Legislature, the measure advanced to the fall ballot with rare bipartisan unity for a significant change in public policy, gaining 39-1 approval in the Senate, and 86-8 passage in the House.

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