It’s a national story — more than 400 Oklahoma prison inmates were released Monday, after Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted their sentences based on the recommendation of the state Pardon and Parole Board. A proponent of the action praised the governor for “acting in the best interests of our communites.”
The sentence commutations were a product of House Bill 1269 becoming law last Friday in Oklahoma. The new law had the effect of making retroactive the content of State Question 780, which voters in the state approved in 2016 to make simple possession of a controlled dangerous substance a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
In Osage County, the district attorney and the sheriff told the Pawhuska Journal-Capital last week that they’re staying focused on maintaining public safety.
Mike Fisher, district attorney for District 10, which includes Osage and Pawnee counties, said the state Pardon and Parole Board, the Department of Corrections and district attorneys throughout the state had been working together to shape the process of potential releases of prison inmates.
Fisher said his office received from the Pardon and Parole Board the names of 11 inmates who were eligible for release. District attorneys were asked not to oppose the release of all inmates whose names were forwarded to them, he said.
Fisher said he looked at the names provided to his office and decided to object to the release of four out of the 11. He said that he had concerns about some of the other seven, but did not object to them. He also explained that when simple possession of a controlled substance was a felony, prosecutors sometimes allowed criminal-case defendants to plead guilty to that felony rather than to more serious offenses for which they had been arrested.
Fisher’s point was that inmates viewed by the Pardon and Parole Board as potentially eligible for release because their convictions were for simple possession of a controlled substance, were frequently suspected of other offenses, as well. Fisher gave an example of an inmate from his district who had numerous prior felony convictions, including for kidnapping, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. The man had been arrested for manufacturing a controlled substance, but allowed to plead down to simple possession, he said.
“This is a man that I consider clearly dangerous to the public,” Fisher said, adding that he opposed the release of anyone with a history of violent offenses.
None of the 11 inmates whose names were provided to his office by the Pardon and Parole Board had fewer than two previous felony convictions, and only one inmate out of the 11 was truly incarcerated simply because of simple drug possession, he said.
Fisher said it is important to understand that Oklahoma prosecutors have not merely been sending people to prison for possessing drugs.
“That’s simply not the case,” Fisher said. He also explained that the elimination from Oklahoma law of felony simple possession of drugs has made it more difficult for prosecutors to persuade drug suspects to enroll in treatment programs.
Sheriff Virden said he and his deputies have noticed that the elimination of felony simple drug possession from Oklahoma law seems to have emboldened drug offenders.
“They don’t have near as much fear as they used to,” he said. “It’s like everything. They’re learning the law’s gonna change and there’s more leniency.”
Virden disputed the notion that drug possession is somehow a crime without victims.
“We all know the biggest lie out there is drugs are a victimless crime,” he said, mentioning people whose property is stolen by drug users looking to support their habits.
“Right now we’ve got so many that are just driving around stealing every day,” Virden said, explaining that thieves have learned that if they steal less than $1,000 worth of property, they’re not going to prison.
“They’re not going to get a job to support their drug habit,” he said.