Hundreds of Oklahoma inmates being released Monday in largest commutation in U.S. history

The state has the highest incarceration rate in the country. But the governor wants to lose that ranking.

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By Daniel Arkin

More than 400 inmates across Oklahoma were being released from prison Monday in what the governor's office calls the largest single-day mass commutation in the nation's history.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board approved the commutations Friday and forwarded them to Gov. Kevin Stitt, a former mortgage company CEO who was elected in 2018. The board voted unanimously to recommend that the sentences of 527 state inmates be commuted, with 462 of those inmates slated to walk out of prison Monday and 65 others being held on detainer.

"With this vote, we are fulfilling the will of Oklahomans," Steve Bickley, executive director of the board, said in a statement Friday. "However, from Day One, the goal of this project has been more than just the release of low-level, nonviolent offenders, but the successful re-entry of these individuals back into society."

Stitt, a Republican, has advocated for criminal justice reform, pledging to move away from policies that have made Oklahoma the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country. At a news conference Friday, Stitt hailed the decision to give hundreds of Oklahomans "a second chance."

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People applaud after the Pardon and Parole Board read the names of 527 Oklahoma inmates recommended for commutation at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City on Nov. 1, 2019. Oklahoma will release more than 400 inmates after a state panel approved what they say is the largest single-day mass commutation in U.S. history.Sarah Phipps / The Oklahoman via AP

"This marks an important milestone of Oklahomans wanting to focus the state's efforts on helping those with nonviolent offenses achieve better outcomes in life," Stitt said in a statement Monday.

"The historic commutation of individuals in Oklahoma's prisons is only possible because our state agencies, elected officials, and partnering organizations put aside politics and worked together to move the needle," he added.

Oklahoma voters approved a state question in 2016 that changed simple drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Stitt signed a bill this year that retroactively adjusted those sentences, approving a fast-track commutation docket for those who met the criteria.

The governor stood outside an all-women's prison in the city of Taft on Monday afternoon, shaking hands with an estimated 70 women as they filed out of the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center. In an emotional scene, former inmates could be seen embracing family and friends, with some breaking down crying as they saw their children.

State officials addressed the inmates under a large tent outside the prison, wishing them good luck as they began the next chapter of their lives. The joy in the room was palpable as the inmates and their relatives applauded and cheered.

"We really want you to have a successful future," Stitt told the crowd. "This is the first day of the rest of your life. ... Let's make it so you guys do not come back here again."

The state is also making sure that the released inmates receive a state-issued driver's license or state-issued identification card — items that are key as those inmates begin to reenter society, apply for jobs and seek housing.

"These are real lives — real people with real families and with real friends — and they get to go home," Republican State Rep. John Echols said at the news conference Friday.

Associated Press contributed.