Is Oklahoma’s mass commutation of prisoners too small to make a difference?

Danni Sloan Roberts, right, embraces her sister Sydney Roberts, left, after being released from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 in Taft, Oklahoma. More than 450 inmates walked out the doors of prisons across Oklahoma on Monday as part of what state officials say is the largest single-day mass commutation in U.S. history. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

In an effort to reconcile its reputation as the nation’s incarceration capital, Oklahoma state officials have commuted the sentences of 462 inmates on Monday, which the governor’s office is calling the largest single-day commutation in the country’s history

portrait of Natasha Frost

Natasha Frost is a professor of criminology and criminal justice in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

But though these commutation numbers are impressive, “I wouldn’t call this a mass commutation,” says Natasha Frost, a Northeastern professor of criminology and criminal justice. “This barely makes a dent in Oklahoma’s prison population.” 

The released prisoners make up only about 2 percent of the state’s prison population, estimated at nearly 28,000 inmates. They were serving sentences for nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession and petty theft, which have since been downgraded from felonies to misdemeanors in the state.

 “Releasing low-level drug offenders, while it’s important, is not going to impact mass incarceration,” says Frost, whose research focuses on mass incarceration and the effects of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities. “Even if you released every drug offender today across the entire U.S., we would still have the highest incarceration rates in the world.”  

To make a meaningful decrease in incarceration rates, Frost says, we would also need to commute people who are serving prison sentences for violent offenses. These people make up about half of all state prison populations, she says. 

“Until we’re willing to do something about those offenders, we’re not going to make a major difference in prison populations,” she says.   

Most inmates who are serving sentences for violent crimes will never be released, which, Frost argues, is unnecessary in the cases of many older prisoners whose risk of committing violent crimes again is quite low because of their age. 

“Our research shows that incarcerating people into their 60s, 70s, 80s is very cost-ineffective,” she says. “Even after the age of 35, there is such a low risk of re-offending.”

People generally have an easier time deciding to commute nonviolent offenders because they’re “less threatening in the public’s imagination,” Frost says. But, she says, “not all violent offenders are serial killers.” 

The problem, she says, is that there are many inmates serving life sentences for significantly less-violent crimes.

One solution for this could be banishing life sentences all together. “We shouldn’t seek sentences of more than 20 years,” Frost says. “And even that would make the U.S. more punitive than the rest of the world.” 

Even if Oklahoma’s commutation was groundbreaking in scale, Frost says it will only be successful if proper steps are taken to prevent recidivism. The state ensured that all released inmates received a driver’s license or identification card, which are required for housing and job applications. 

Because securing jobs and housing is crucial for reducing the chances of re-offending.

Frost says that the state’s move is a step in the right direction. “Without a job or a place to live, these people have really limited options,” she says. “That’s when we see very high recidivism rates.”   

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