MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

October 6, 2012

SQ 762 modifies pardon and parole process

By Joy Hampton
CNHI

— Proponents of State Question 762 say it will save the state millions of dollars. Opponents say it will open the gates for those prisoners who need to serve their time.

State Question 762 modifies the power and authority of the governor and Pardon and Parole Board in the parole process for nonviolent offenders by removing the governor from the process.

“Letting the governor focus on parole recommendations for violent crimes is a critical component of Oklahoma’s recent progress to build a stronger, more effective criminal justice system,” said House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. “Approving this measure will generate tens of millions of dollars in savings that can be reinvested in initiatives that truly reduce and prevent crime. A vote for SQ 762 is a vote for a safer Oklahoma.”

The 2007 audit of the Department of Corrections found that removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders would save up to $40 million over the course of a decade because of the increased efficiencies and quicker processing of paroles.

“It is our hope that these savings can then be reinvested into strategies to aggressively reduce and prevent crime,” Steele said.

“The Legislature defines what offenses are nonviolent offenses and the Legislature may change that definition,” according to the ballot language

Noble County District Attorney Greg Mashburnstrongly opposes the measure and supports a “no” vote.

“I am very much opposed to 762. It removes all accountability to the pardon and parole process,” Mashburn said. “By taking the governor out, it allows the Pardon and Parole Board to parole people straight to the streets with no checks and balances. The Pardon and Parole Board is not accountable to the people of the state of Oklahoma. For instance, if a parole board member is from, let’s say Clinton, and they want to release someone to the streets of Idabel, they’re not accountable to anyone in Idabel. They don’t have to answer to the people of Idabel. And we know, based on recent experience with the parole board,  they’re not acting very responsible with their choices.”

Proponents of the measure strongly disagree.

If voters approve this change, dollars would be saved and the process would move more smoothly, according to Dr. Susan F. Sharp, L. J. Semrod Presidential Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma.

“The decisions about non-violent cases would be made by individuals with more experience, more knowledge of risk assessment,” Sharp said.  “The governor would be able to focus attention on the more serious crimes.”

Sharp supports a “yes” vote on this measure.

“I believe this change is needed because we are the only state that requires the governor to approve every single parole,” she said. “This is a time-consuming process, and it means that our prisons just keep getting fuller. Parole is an important public safety issue, and by putting the governor as the final point of accountability, we make it into a political issue rather than a corrections and public safety issue.”

Mashburn said releasing prisoners is not the answer, however.

“There are other things that can be done, besides just opening the doors,” Mashburn said. “Oklahoma is one of the only states that has a earned credit system and a parole board on top of that.”

Joy Hampton writes for The Norman Transcript.