When Can a Sentence Be Commuted in Oklahoma?
Oklahoma has a famously high incarceration rate. The state has made an effort in the past few years to change this, including passing a 2016 law to reclassify low-level drug and theft crimes that led to record-high commutations of sentences in Oklahoma in 2019 and 2020.
A commutation is a reduction of a prison sentence, reviewed and recommended by the Oklahoma Board of Prisons and signed by the governor. Commutation doesn’t always get you out of prison right away, and it doesn’t restore your gun rights, voting rights, or ability to serve on a jury. But it can reduce the time you’ll serve and relieve you from paying fines.
Could you or a loved one get a commutation in Oklahoma? What are the chances – and what could stand in your way? Let’s dive in.
What Cases Are Eligible for Commutation of a Sentence in Oklahoma?
Any crime can be eligible for commutation in Oklahoma, including felonies and violent crimes. Because the purpose of commutation is to correct an unjust punishment, eligibility for commutation isn’t about the crime, but about the time: It’s based on whether you received an excessive sentence.
The criteria for commutation of a sentence in Oklahoma include:
- You’re in physical custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections – not on parole or probation
- The sentence you received was either excessive at the time or would be considered excessive now, based on current law
- There are new facts in your case that weren’t known at the time of your sentencing
- You haven’t applied for commutation and received an unfavorable recommendation within the past 3 years
In the famous Julius Jones case, for example, his application for commutation pointed to ineffective counsel, including unqualified attorneys and the fact that the jury never heard his alibi or jailhouse testimony in his favor. There was also evidence of racial bias.
What Are the Chances of My Sentence Being Commuted?
While any crime is eligible under the rules above, commutation of a sentence in Oklahoma is more likely for low-level drug and theft offenses and other non-violent crimes. And, while Governor Kevin Stitt commuted 774 sentences in his first year in office, he has recently faced criticism for these policies, and commutations have dropped.
Examples of Commuted Sentences in Oklahoma
Julius Jones is the most famous example of a commuted sentence in Oklahoma: His case drew national attention from the likes of Kim Kardashian and quarterback Baker Mayfield, and Governor Stitt commuted his sentence from death to life without parole just four hours before his execution.
Most death-row inmates aren’t so lucky, but those who have committed nonviolent drug and theft crimes could be. Another famous day in Oklahoma commutation history was in November 2019, when Governor Stitt granted sentence reductions for 527 such crimes, 462 of which resulted in immediate release. That was thanks to House Bill 1269, which applied a law reclassifying certain crimes as misdemeanors to the existing prison population.
Can a Commutation Be Blocked?
Yes – if the Board recommends your commutation to the governor, this gives various parties the opportunity to protest it, including:
- Victims, their family members, and other representatives
- The district attorney
- A representative from the law enforcement agency that arrested you
- The judicial representative from the court that convicted you
These people can write letters to the governor to oppose your commutation. However, you can also have your supporters write letters. Having support from family members and others who are willing to provide you with housing and employment upon release can make a difference.
Do I Have Any Other Options?
If the Board denies your request for commutation of a sentence in Oklahoma, you’ll have to wait another three years before you can reapply. There are other ways you can earn early release, although they’re not the same as commutation.
Parole means early release under a set of strict conditions. Unless you received a sentence without the possibility of parole, you will be assigned a certain date when your case will be eligible to come before the Pardon and Parole Board. The Board doesn’t have to grant you parole, and for violent offenses, both the Board and the governor must approve. Sometimes, you may need to apply for parole even if you received a commutation, like if your sentence is changed to one with a possibility of parole.
In Oklahoma, most inmates can earn credits toward early release while they’re in prison. One credit is equal to one day off your sentence, and how many you can earn depends on your behavior while you’re incarcerated. Inmates can earn credits for:
- Time served in county jail before sentencing
- Achieving goals such as substance abuse recovery, behavioral management, and vocational training
- “Meritorious acts,” or good deeds that preserve property, life, or safety
While these credits don’t apply to those serving life sentences, you can still earn them. Then, if your sentence is commuted to a lesser one, the credits can be applied to that sentence, earning you even more reduced time.
The Bottom Line
Earning the commutation of a sentence in Oklahoma can be a long and complex process. From filling out your application correctly and providing the right information, to making your case at your hearing, an experienced attorney can help you get your commutation request right, the first time. Don’t get stuck with a denied application, waiting three years to reapply. Contact the Tulsa Expungement Guy for a free evaluation of whether you or your loved one is eligible for commutation.