State initiative reclassified felony crimes to misdemeanors and sweeping vote allowed changes to apply to those serving sentences

Kisha Sniders mother and cousin waited anxiously to greet her as she walked free from prison in a clean pair of white jeans, black sneakers and a sparkly T-shirt.

The 42-year-old mother of four was one of more than 500 men and women in Oklahoma whose felony sentences for drug possession and theft were commuted by a sweeping vote of the state pardon and parole board and released early from prison on Monday in what experts say may be the biggest single-day release of prisoners in US history.

Oh my God, Im so happy, Snider said, wiping the tears streaming down her face as she was released years earlier than expected from Eddie Warrior correctional center in Taft, about 45 miles south-east of Tulsa. Her cousin, Niese Jenkins, hugged her, then posed for a flock of television cameras. She yelled: Were going home!

Governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican, shook the hands of the women as they left Eddie Warrior on Monday afternoon. Oklahoma voters approved a state initiative in 2016 that reclassified certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies. This year, lawmakers passed a bill making those changes apply to people who were already serving felony sentences for those crimes.

The mass release marks a striking change for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma: per capita, the state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the US. And it locks up women at the highest rate of any state. Before the mass release on Monday, state prisons held almost 25,750 people.

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Police pulled over Snider in 2015 while she was driving in the tiny Oklahoma town of Boley; they said she had activated her turn signal too early, made a wide turn and had a burned-out light over her license plate. According to the police report, officers found two marijuana cigarettes in her red Mazda.

Prosecutors offered Snider a deal: go through the states drug-court program or face eight years in prison.

Snider struggled for three years to meet all the requirements of drug court, including paying hundreds of dollars for drug tests from the money she earned at an $8.10-an-hour job as a nurses aide. Last year, she said, she decided it was just easier to go to prison.

On Monday, she was among at least 55 women who were slated to leave Eddie Warrior, a minimum-security prison that was once an orphanage for black children.

They were mothers and grandmothers, women who struggled to pay bills and beat addiction while working as dog groomers, hotel clerks and nursing home aides.

On Sunday morning, they packed up their few belongings in the dormitory-style housing (one woman was so excited she packed her pillow, making for a hard nights sleep on the metal bunk beds).

The release was a huge undertaking: a coalition of social service groups worked to help inmates find safe housing and job prospects, obtain valid state identification cards and get clean outfits to wear on the trip home. They were preparing for a journey thats about more than just physical distance.

Tana Hackley, 46, will owe almost $5,000 in court costs when she returns home to western Oklahoma. But she had faced almost 15 years for meth possession at one point so shes grateful for a fresh start.

Tana
Tana Hackley pauses for a moment during an interview with Cary Aspinwall of the Marshall Project at Eddie Warrior correctional facility the night before her release. Photograph: Shane Bevel

Once she pays her court costs, this felony will be removed from her record, leaving her with only a misdemeanor conviction for the crime. That means better options for jobs and housing even college tuition assistance and technical skills training that a felony conviction might have barred her from.

Places like Dollar General wouldnt even hire me before, Hackley said, smiling through tears. I can do anything now. I dont have to hold myself back.

Commutation alters a prison sentence that officials consider unjust and can only be granted by Oklahomas governor, once someone has been recommended by the state pardon and parole board.

It has been extremely rare in fact, Oklahomas pardon and parole board didnt review a single application for commutation for three years, an investigation by the Frontier found. A new executive director and a fresh lineup of board members have sped things up, taking on a backlog of more than 2,600 commutation applications.

Experts say parole is crucial to reducing incarceration. In a report published earlier this year examining parole practices among US states, researchers at the University of Minnesotas Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice said some state parole boards have so much discretion and power over incarceration rates, their impact could be more significant than judges and courts.

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Chris Davis greets his girlfriend Donnie Sue Crow with their children Faydon, left, and Chris, right, after Donnie Sue was released from prison during what is believed to be the single largest mass commutation in United States history at the Eddie Warrior correctional facility. Photograph: Shane Bevel

Kris Steele, a Republican, served as Oklahomas speaker of the house when the state first tried reforming the parole system in 2012. Many of those early attempts were thwarted by elected officials who viewed being tough on crime as politically advantageous, he said.

We have decades of politics and policy that led to our incarceration rates, Steele said. Our system has been very punitive, its been based on retribution.

But ultimately these reforms were directly the will of the people, the voice of the people, he said.

Donnie Sue Crow, 36, had a baby and a toddler at home when she got locked up, after she failed to make payments and show up for court dates while on probation for marijuana possession. Her mistakes meant she was sent to prison to serve 10 years for having less than half a gram of marijuana on her during a 2017 arrest.

Shes missed first steps and first words. Without the commutation, she would probably miss their first days of school. Crows mother, Connie Copeland, clung to the prisons chain-link fence as the women began to exit. Her youngest grandchild was only five months old when his mother was locked up.

I know shes gonna be stronger when she comes out than when she went in, but this didnt need to happen, Copeland said. She spent a year away from her babies.

This story was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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