The Complete Guide To Commutation In Oklahoma

The Complete Guide To Commutation In Oklahoma

Commutation in Oklahoma has a long and storied history. One study found that Oklahoma awarded nearly 70% of all U.S. commutations given in 1987. Current Governor Kevin Stitt awarded 774 commutations in his first year in office alone. Oklahoma commutations have been in the news, too: In 2021, the case of death row inmate Julius Jones drew the attention of Kim Kardashian and other celebrities, and Governor Stitt commuted his sentence to life without parole just four hours before his execution.

Your case may not catch Kim Kardashian’s eye, but if you meet the requirements and have the right strategy, you could still have your sentence commuted. Here’s what you need to know.

What is commutation?

Commutation is when your sentence is changed to one that’s less harsh. Put simply, it’s a reduced sentence. That can mean a variety of things: You could have your sentence commuted from life without parole to life with parole, from 10 years to 5 years, or to time served, meaning you would get out of prison. You could also be released from paying a fine. Commutations are given by the governor of Oklahoma or by the president of the United States for federal crimes. For State crimes In Oklahoma, you’ll go before the Pardon and Parole Board to appeal for a commutation.

What’s the difference between commutation and pardon?

Like commutations, pardons are given to correct an injustice, but there are many differences between the two. A commutation modifies your sentence, while a pardon terminates it. If you’re pardoned, you simply get out of prison. Pardons also restore your rights, including your right to vote, serve on a jury, and possess a firearm, while commutations don’t.

What’s the difference between commutation and parole?

Parole is a separate form of early release. If approved, the prisoner is released with a set of conditions, like checking in with a parole officer. Their civil rights are not restored, and they can be returned to prison if they violate parole. Because commutation simply reduces your sentence, you may still need to apply for parole—for example, if your sentence is commuted from life without parole to life with the possibility of parole, you’ll still go through the parole process when the time comes.

What is the commutation law in Oklahoma?

The law governing commutation in Oklahoma is 57 OK Stat § 57-332.2. Some of the key points are:

  • The Pardon and Parole Board must consider all applications fairly and impartially.
  • After approval by the Board, the governor finalizes all commutations.
  • There is an accelerated process for prisoners convicted of crimes that Oklahoma has reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors.
  • The Board governs who can attend hearings.
  • The Board regularly reports its activities, including commutations, to the State Legislature.
  • Certain notifications must be given to the victims of the crimes.

Who is eligible for commutation in Oklahoma?

Anyone in physical custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections can apply for commutation—that means you can’t currently be on parole or probation. What are the minimum requirements for a commuted sentence? To actually win commutation in Oklahoma, you also need to prove one of the following:

  • Your sentence was excessive at the time of sentencing.
  • There has been a change in the penalty for the crime which makes your sentence excessive under current law.
  • New facts have come to light that were not available at the time of your trial.

A good example of the requirements for a commuted sentence in Oklahoma comes from the state’s reclassification of drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. This reclassification led to commuted sentences for 462 Oklahomans in 2019, who were released from prison for time served.

How does a commutation work in Oklahoma?

Commutations in Oklahoma go through a two-stage process: Qualification Review and Commutation Hearing. The steps are:

  1. Complete, sign, and notarize your application if necessary. Then mail it to the Pardon and Parole Board at the address on the application. Submit any letters of support along with your application.
  2. The Board will check that you’ve filled everything out correctly. If you haven’t, they’ll reject your application.
  3. Next, the Board determines if your application has merit: Does your case meet the requirements for commutation?
  4. If your application has merit, you’ll be scheduled for a personal appearance at a hearing with the Board. Only two people can attend the hearing, and only one is allowed to speak.
  5. After the hearing, the Board will vote to confirm or deny your request for commutation.
  6. If the Board approves your request, the commutation is passed to the governor for final approval.

If you’re not awarded commutation, you can reapply if:

  • You have a recommendation from the governor
  • There has been a change in the law that would change the penalty for your crime
  • Three years have passed since the date of denial

How do you write a commutation letter?

Like many other states, both supporters and victims are allowed to write letters either for or against commutations in Oklahoma. Letters of support can help you prove that you have a network to help you if you’re released and can increase your chances of earning a commuted sentence. These letters can be from friends, family, co-workers, respected members of the community (like clergy members or teachers), or potential employers. If people want to submit letters of support with your commutation application and make sure they include:

  • The offender’s name, DOC number, and docket month and year
  • The date of the letter
  • The supporter’s name and job title or relationship to the offender
  • A greeting of “Dear Board Members”
  • An explanation of the length and nature of the relationship to the offender
  • The offender’s accomplishments and efforts to improve themselves, such as working or getting an education in prison
  • An explanation of why the supporter believes the offender’s sentence should be commuted and how they can help the offender once out of prison
  • The supporter’s signature, notarized if necessary

Supporters shouldn’t use their letters to protest innocence or minimize the crime. In fact, the offender may have a better chance of commutation if they take responsibility for the crime and show how it has been a learning experience for them.

Keep in mind that the Board may also receive letters of protest. Victims, their representatives, members of the relevant judiciary and law enforcement agency, and the district attorney are allowed to protest an application for commutation.

Do you need a lawyer for an Oklahoma commutation?

Under the law, you don’t need an attorney to apply for commutation or to attend your hearing, but you will have a much better chance of winning if you do have a lawyer. An experienced Oklahoma commutation lawyer can:

  • Evaluate your case to help you determine if you have a claim for commutation
  • Help you fill out your application and navigate the process
  • Persuasively present your case to the Board at your hearing

The bottom line

No one wants to serve more time than they need to. If you are seeking a commutation in Oklahoma, or you’re looking into it for a loved one, it’s a good idea to talk to an attorney. Contact Us for a case evaluation, and if you qualify, we’ll help you build the best possible argument for the commutation of your sentence.