In 2016, a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma voted “yes” on State Question 780. As a result, simple drug possession was transformed from being a felony to a misdemeanor. The new law, however, did not apply retroactively. There was no reprieve for people already serving lengthy prison sentences for a crime that, overnight, had come to carry far less severe penalties (no more than one year in jail or a $1,000 fine).
In order to help these individuals benefit from the new law and get released earlier, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) launched Project Commutation in May 2018. Through the efforts of this initiative, by December 21 Governor Mary Fallin had commuted the sentences of 29 prisoners who otherwise would have languished behind bars.
A strong coalition
Project Commutation relied on the involvement and cooperation of a number of people and organizations. These included the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC), the Tulsa County Public Defenders Office and Family & Children’s Services. One of the most crucial groups was eight University of Tulsa College of Law students enrolled in the juris doctor program.
Dee Harris of Family & Children’s Services in Tulsa notes that “without the dedication and months of work from advocates and law students from The University of Tulsa, recommendations for commutation would have never been brought forth to the Pardon and Parole Board. Many citizens don’t realize that just because a law is changed, it isn’t automatic that individuals are commuted.”
Hardworking TU interns
From late May through summer and into the fall, the TU Law students met at the Public Defenders Office in downtown Tulsa. There, they sifted through the records of nearly 1,000 individuals in DOC custody. The goal was to identify prisoners who were serving 10 or more years for drug offenses that had become misdemeanors. But that was only the first step.
Once about 400 candidates for commutation had been identified, the TU Law interns then narrowed the field to 49 who stood a particularly strong chance of being granted early release. Traveling to every prison in Oklahoma, the interns then met individually with the identified prisoners.
The purpose of these visits was to understand each person’s background, character and case in order to be able to prepare the strongest commutation application possible. As TU Law Professor Stephen Galoob observes, “a big part of their job at this stage was to identify the features that would be the most compelling to the Pardon and Parole Board.”
In addition to this research and case-development work, the TU Law students also liaised extensively with the inmates’ family and friends. This part of the project was focused on building dossiers that demonstrated those whose sentences were commuted would have support upon release. A crucial further step in this process was the creation for each person of a community re-entry plan involving, for example, housing, skills training and addiction counseling.
An “amazing process”
The TU Law students’ work was supervised by Assistant Public Defender Glen Blake. His voice swells when he describes the “absolutely amazing process” of working with these dedicated interns. “I wish I had had such an opportunity when I was a student in law school. It was so terrific to watch the students get to know these people on paper, and then see them go out and interview them and become so personally invested. They were in constant communication with the incarcerated people and even in touch with their families and friends.”
Blake concludes, “based on everything I’ve heard, I think that working on Project Commutation has had a profound impact on the way they’ll go through life as attorneys.” His insight is borne out by TU Law student Kate Forest, 2L, who says that “participating in the project showed me that my interest lies in policy and solutions. I am interested in reform – civil and criminal legislation and in the courts – and I am a solutions person. Project Commutation was wonderful and monumental. It was a great example of the system reforming and working as it should.”