Oklahoma criminal justice coalition campaigns for reduced sentences for drug offenders


Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform has launched a new campaign to reduce prison sentences for dozens of people serving time right now for non-violent, low-level drug possession charges.

The advocacy group is helping 31 men and woman apply for commutation with the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

"We’re not looking for pardons, we’re not looking for expungements," said John Estus, chief of staff for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. "These people have been convicted of the offense. We’re just simply seeking to change their punishment and put it in line with current law."

Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. For the past few years, the state legislature and Oklahoma voters have passed new laws to address the growing problem. However, hundreds have been left out of the reform because they were sentenced before those changes were made.

In 2016, voters passed State Question 780, which reclassified drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

"Today, if you were charged with drug possession, you would likely get a ticket and if you did go to prison, you would not go to prison for 10 years or more, like all of our applicants did," Estus said.

The coalition has carefully vetted each applicant. Estus says they've proved they're ready to return to society by getting treatment, working in faith-based programs, and staying in touch with their families.

"We’re sad we’re not helping more than 31 people, because we know there are thousands who need help, but if we can be successful here, maybe we can do more in the future," said Estus.

The Pardon and Parole Board uses a two-step process to consider commutations, which usually takes about six months. Some of the applicants OCJR is campaigning for have their second hearing with the board in just a few weeks. The governor then has the final say on whether to approve or deny the board's recommendation.

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