The History Behind Oklahoma’s Mass Commutation


Vivi Kaufman
On November 4th, a prison in Oklahoma commuted the sentences of hundreds of non-violent prisoners. Over 462 prisoners with minor drug offenses and property crimes totaling less than $1000 were released. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board granted commutation on a case by case basis to ensure the safety of other Oklahoman citizens. This commutation is a step in the right direction for a state that has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. 
Mass incarceration has plagued the United States for decades. The War on Drugs was one of the first crackdowns, led by Richard Nixon, that increased the U.S. incarceration rate by nearly 400% within 30 years. One of Nixon’s campaign managers, John Eirlichman, admitted the administration’s true intentions in a published interview, when he said, ‘‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
From 1980 until its peak in 2009, the total federal and state prison population of the United States climbed from about 330,000 to more than 1.6 million while the total general population of the country grew by only 36%, and the crime rate fell by 42%. The rapid rise of incarcerated Americans was due to Nixon’s policy changes that prioritized “getting tough” on crime. 
Nixon’s goals of disenfranchising black Americans through drug policies permeated the whole incarceration system, and is still clear in the data about incarcerated black Americans today. In the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 17 million white people and 4 million African Americans reported having used an illicit drug within the last month. According to the NAACP, African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites. Furthermore, African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but make up 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses in state facilities.
According to a survey by the U.S Department of Justice, 46.1% of incarcerated people were jailed for drug offenses in 2018. Prisoners whose most serious crime was a nonviolent drug offense constituted 14.8% of the federal prison population. Many states are starting to understand the factors that emerge from their harsh drug policies, and Oklahoma is leading the pack in taking action to reverse their effects. 
Junior Freddi Mitchell shared her perspective on the recent commutation and its role in our country’s prison system: “What Oklahoma is doing is moving towards criminal justice reform, which is what this country needs. Right now we have too many non-violent offenders in our prison system, and there is a mass incarceration of specifically people of color [within] a criminal justice system that doesn’t work for all.”
Oklahoma’s long term plan is to reduce overcrowded prisons while helping low-level offenders build a life of self-sufficiency rather than reincarceration. Julia Faircloth, whose sentence was commuted, shared: “This is truly a blessing to be able to get out on something like this, when you get overlooked so often.” Ms. Faircloth plans to return to Willow, Oklahoma, hoping to attend college and secure a job at a local Hobby Lobby store. Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma commented in a public statement: “This event is another mark on our historic timeline as we move the needle in criminal justice reform that will offer our fellow citizens a second chance while also keeping our communities and streets safe.”
State governments have recognized incarceration for drug offenses not only as a social issue but as a financial issue. The mass commutations will save Oklahoma taxpayers an estimated $11.9 million based on costs projected had the eligible prisoners served their full sentences. Put simply, the more people incarcerated, the more money funneled into state jails, which is money that could be put towards education or drug rehabilitation centers.
Senior Sydney Berger commented, “I think [the commutation] is a positive thing, but it is only happening because they had put many people who had committed such minimal crimes in jail [in the first place]. Non-violent drug crimes should be handled through rehab instead of prison. Prison reform should take into account the need of the people not just the size and needs of the prison and state.”
Oklahoma has taken its prison reforms one step further: the state is starting to fund transition fairs within prisons to help prisoners assimilate to society once they get out. These fairs have post-incarceration employment opportunities and include a few non-profit organizations aimed at keeping people with previous sentences out of jail. In the long run, these efforts will lower the number of second-time prisoners and reduce the overall percentages of incarcerated people in Oklahoma. 
Junior Alessandra Kaestner said: “I think this is a good thing because it shows that Oklahoma is moving in the right direction and all of these people who were wrongly placed in jail can go back to their families and friends.” Junior Anees Goparaju agreed: “I think it is a positive thing to release these people from prison. It’s a small step forward to prison reform, and these are the measures to do that. There’s a fine line between who should be released, but I agree with these actions taken”
According to many, Oklahoma is taking a step in the right direction. It has improved the lives of over 500 former inmates, and has implemented more permanent solutions to the hampered employment opportunities for people with criminal records. Although the course of action for certain non-violent drug offenses versus more violent crimes is still debated, Oklahoma is one of a rising number of states that is rethinking its prison systems. Regardless of the outcome, America is starting to recognize the flaws in its outdated prison system, an awareness that will shape the future of American prisons for years to come.