The uniting politics of second-chance justice

Oklahoma’s mass commutation reflects a bipartisan spirit of forgiveness that could find a place in American politics.

Recently released inmate Donnie Crow, left, walks from a correctional center in Taft, Okla.

A unanimous vote last week by Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board began, for the state, a week of second chances. The board approved the largest single-day commutation in American history. More than 500 people convicted of low-level drug and nonviolent offenses were pardoned. 

The decision was in one sense long overdue. In 2016, the state Legislature reclassified crimes with penalties under $1,000 from felonies to misdemeanors. This January, it voted to make the law retroactive. More than 800 prisoners applied for commuted sentences, and 65% were approved. Now, those in Oklahoma prisons are receiving the same punishments they would today.

For the 527 people leaving prison, the decision represents an opportunity. With the median age of those released just under 40, they have much left to live. Parents are coming back to children. Friends are being reunited. Their releases reflect a shifting model of criminal justice, in which law enforcement does not label someone a criminal forever after a conviction.

Long a law-and-order state, Oklahoma is reforming its prison system. Until now, it had the highest incarceration rate in the country. Even after the dip, it’s still in second. For a system focused so long on punishment alone, the sudden act of forgiveness presents a second chance of its own. Criminal justice in Oklahoma is capable of reform. Even now, it’s underway.

Demand for that reform comes from the bottom up. Announcing the decision, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said the state was “implementing the will of the people.” Oklahoma has a Republican-dominated Legislature, but it is taking a bipartisan approach toward developing a more compassionate legal system. Even if interparty acrimony on many issues seems high in the United States, criminal justice reform passed in Oklahoma with overwhelming support.

The reforms may signal a change in perspective among Americans toward more rehabilitation and less retribution in criminal justice. More politicians are taking note and cooperating to make such reforms. 

Perhaps this is the key lesson from Oklahoma’s commutations. If forgiveness needs a stronger place in criminal justice, it may also have a place in politics, not just for individual politicians, but also for the system as a whole. If Americans can unite behind ideals of love and forgiveness, and government can enable that cooperation, then maybe the political system itself deserves a second chance.

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