Oklahoma's drug laws are tough--among the toughest in the nation. And although the federal government called stringent drug penalties "draconian" and backed away from them in recent years, Oklahoma has been slower to move in reducing drug sentences that are typically overkill.
In fact, a recent article in The Oklahoman says there are roughly 50 Oklahoma inmates serving life sentences for drug crimes; a third of those are awaiting a commutation from Governor Mary Fallin that could shorten their sentences or make them eligible for parole.
Many of these men and women were convicted under a previous Oklahoma law that handed down a mandatory life sentence for drug trafficking after two or more prior drug convictions. In 2015, state law got rid of the mandatory life sentence in such a case; however, the law is not applied retroactively. Dozens of inmates sentenced to life for drug crimes are hopeful that the governor will commute their sentences since those sentences would not be possible under existing law.
A commutation is one way to rectify an unjust sentence. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board makes a recommendation to the governor for a prisoner's sentence to be commuted. The governor has the final say in whether or not to commute the sentence and what the new sentence will be. However, she has no time limit on when to act on the Board's recommendation.
The Pardon and Parole Board says that a third of Oklahoma's prisoners serving life without parole for drug crimes are awaiting approval of the Board's recommendation for commutation, and that many of those have been waiting seven months or more for Governor Fallin to act.
One inmate, for whom the Board recommended commutation in July, told the newspaper, "If (Gov. Fallin) would just sign, there are about five of us that would go home. It seems like she wants to keep us in here."
Lynn Powell is the Oklahoma director for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a criminal justice reform nonprofit. She says of inmates serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, "It's a waste of taxpayer money to keep them in prison."
This can be especially true for older inmates with medical problems. At least 12 of the inmates currently awaiting commutation of life sentences for drug crimes are over the age of 50, and the oldest is now 74 years old.
In June, Governor Fallin commuted the sentences of five inmates serving life without parole for drug crimes. In December, she commuted two more sentences for female inmates at Mabel Bassett, reducing a 50-year drug sentence to 20 years and commuting the sentence of a woman serving life for grand larceny.
From the time the Parole Board recommends commutation until the governor approves the commuted sentence is typically three or four months. There has been no speculation as to why several inmates have been waiting since last May for the governor to act.
Image credit: Oklahoma Department of Corrections