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.
The release of inmates, all with convictions for low-level drug and property crimes, resulted from a bill signed by new Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt. The bill retroactively applied misdemeanor sentences for simple drug possession and low-level property crimes that state voters approved in 2016.
Stitt has made reducing Oklahoma’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate one of his top priorities and has appointed reform-minded members to the state’s Pardon and Parole Board.
Releasing the inmates will save Oklahoma an estimated $11.9 million over the cost of continuing to keep them behind bars, according to the governor’s office.
The board last week considered 814 cases and recommended 527 inmates for commutation. However, 65 are being held on detainers, leaving about 462 inmates to be released on Monday.
“It feels amazing to be on the other side of the fence,” said Tess Harjo, a 28-year-old who was released Monday from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma.
Harjo was sentenced to 15 years in prison after her Okmulgee County conviction last year for possession of methamphetamines. She said she was surprised at the number of women she met in prison serving long sentences for drug crimes.
“I have met many women in here who came from a medium- or maximum-security prison who have already served 18 or more years,” Harjo said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Steve Bickley, the new executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, said Monday’s release is the most on a single day, surpassing President Barack Obama’s 2017 commutation of the drug sentences of 330 federal prisoners on his last day in office.