Prison fence topeka correctional facility stock photo inmate

Until it released 462 inmates in one day, Oklahoma had the dubious honor of being the world’s prison capital, locking up a higher proportion of its residents than any other state or country.  

More than 450 inmates in Oklahoma were released earlier this month after a law signed this year retroactively reduced the sentences for individuals who committed low-level crimes.

Last year, Oklahoma edged out Louisiana for the dubious honor of being the “world’s prison capital”— locking up a higher proportion of its residents than any other state or country. Egged on by that “honor,” lawmakers and businesspeople from both parties took up the cause of reforming their state’s criminal justice system.

Oklahoma’s prison chief has called for major changes to sentencing laws. Recently elected Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt campaigned on a promise to reduce the prison population.

“Right now, we’re incarcerating people we’re mad at. We’re not really afraid of them,” he told the Associated Press during his campaign.

In 2016, referendums passed in Oklahoma made simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony and raised the threshold of felony property crimes – including theft, vandalism, shoplifting and robbery – up to $1,000. Earlier this year, Stitt signed a law that would apply these changes retroactively for current inmates.

Instead of automatically converting convictions to misdemeanors or granting release outright, the bill made people like Rawls eligible for fast-tracked commutations, or sentence reductions from the executive branch. Traditionally, commutation in Oklahoma requires a two-stage application process, including an in-person hearing before the Pardon and Parole Board, where prosecutors, law enforcement, and victims are allowed to protest release.

Of the 814 people in prison for eligible nonviolent drug offenses, the parole board recommended 527 for commutation at a special meeting last Friday. The remaining 287 individuals, who were not recommended for reasons like behavioral infractions or protests from prosecutors, may still apply for commutation via the standard, drawn-out process, but their approval is not guaranteed.

Stitt approved all 527 recommendations, although 65 people remain behind bars on additional charges.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board approved the commutation of 462 inmates unanimously, and on Friday, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office has processed the recommendations for final approval. It is the largest mass commutation – or reduction of a sentencing – in U.S. history. President Barack Obama released 330 federal prisoners on his last day of office.

November’s 462-person release reduced the prison population by 1.7 percent — enough to allow Oklahoma to shed its title as the most incarcerated state in the nation.

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