Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt welcomed inmates released in the largest commutation in U.S. history Monday, saying “This is the first day of the rest of your life.”
The Republican governor shook the hands of dozens of women as they were released from the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft. He encouraged the newly released inmates to seek help from the state and nonprofit groups to aid their reintegration into society, Fox News reports.
“We really want you to have a successful future,” Stitt told a crowd outside. … Let’s make it so you guys do not come back here again.”
“I’m not ever coming back here again ever,” Danni Roberts, one of the more than 450 inmates freed, told the detention officers.
“I like y’all, OK? But I’m not ever coming back,”reports the Tulsa World.
Roberts served three years of a 12-year term for drug possession within 1,000 feet of a school or park. She was among those who listened as Stitt encouraged women being released to seek resources made available to them as a first step to lifelong success.
The governor said two dozen reentry fairs had been held in prisons across the state to help connect the inmates being released to social services and resources.A 2019 law made it easier to review the sentences of inmates who were previously charged with crimes that would not be considered felonies if charged today, the governor’s office said in a news release Friday.
That includes simple drug possession, which is now considered a misdemeanor, and some low-level property crimes.
Nonprofit organizations and churches offered support with finding employment, housing, education and other programs. The popularity of the reentry fairs shows that Oklahomans want to walk with them hand in hand starting on the first day of the rest of their lives, he said.
Awaiting the release of 70 women, throngs of family members and friends were interspersed with local and national media representatives outside the prison’s chain-link fence. The sight overwhelmed some of the newly freed inmates and caught others off guard.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had reviewed the cases of 814 inmates and recommended 527 to Stitt. Because 65 of the approved inmates had retainers, 462 were released on Monday.
“This is a historical day for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, as we send the largest single-day commutation of sentences in our nation’s history to the governor’s desk,” Steven Bickley, executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, said in the Friday release.
The commutation is a success for criminal justice reform efforts in a state that has a long history of harsh sentencing practices and high incarceration rates, reported the Washington Post Monday. It’s evidence of the Republican-dominated legislature’s willingness to move closer in line with the majority of voters who favor a less punitive approach.
The historic commutations come amid nationwide efforts to reduce punishment of low-level crimes and move the U.S. prison system in a more rehabilitative direction. In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved two ballot measures that reclassified certain drug possession and nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors instead of felonies and mandated that the cost savings would go to drug treatment and rehabilitation services. In January, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers voted to make the 2016 laws apply retroactively.
The commutations are just a small fraction of the state’s 26,334-person prison population.