OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday commuted the sentences of 21 prison inmates convicted of various nonviolent offenses in an unusual move that underscores the Republican leader's push to reduce Oklahoma's prison population.
Fallin signed the commutations during an emotional ceremony at the state Capitol in which family and friends of the prisoners cheered every signature.
"As we prepare for this Christmas holiday season, let's not forget," Fallin said, pausing as her eyes filled with tears. "There is a God of second chances."
Only a small number of commutation requests typically reach the governor's office each year, and pardon and parole officials say only about 3 percent of requests are ultimately signed by the governor.
But this year, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a bipartisan group of civic and business leaders, partnered with University of Tulsa law students for a commutation campaign that helped inmates prepare paperwork and coordinate for treatment, housing and job prospects upon their release. Each of the 21 offenders, mostly women convicted of drug crimes, were sentenced to 10 or more years in prison for offenses that now carry only jail time or significantly reduced sentences.
Another group of about two dozen offenders are expected to reach Fallin's desk later this month.
Four children of 36-year-old Juanita Peralta, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug possession, were among those excited about the release of their mother.
"I was talking to my sister, and she asked: Is this really happening?" said Peralta's eldest daughter, 21-year-old Destiny Pinon of Ada. Pinon said she has been raising her siblings, who range in age from 8 to 15, since their mother was incarcerated two years ago.
Initially 22 offenders were selected for commutation, but one inmate was cited for misconduct before the requests were sent to the governor, said John Estus, chief of staff for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
Fallin's commutations shaved more than 340 years off the sentences of the 21 inmates.
Oklahoma's incarceration rate has been increasing for decades, and the state earlier this year surpassed Louisiana to earn the dubious distinction as having the highest incarceration rate in the nation.
Although Fallin in recent years has pushed for changes to the state's criminal justice system, like more treatment and sentencing options for nonviolent offenders, many of her proposals have been resisted by the state's GOP-controlled Legislature and elected district attorneys .
After years of inaction by the Legislature, a group of civic and business leaders led an effort two years ago to reduce the penalties for drug possession and low-level property crimes. Voters approved the plan in 2016 with nearly 60 percent of the vote.