Law & the Courts

Let’s Learn from Oklahoma’s Inmate Releases

A soldier stands guard in a tower, December 31, 2009 (Spc. Cody Black/Reuters)
This means that hundreds of people would be given the chance to have their lives back and contribute to society, and saves on resources for Oklahoma state taxpayers. 

More than 450 inmates were released in Oklahoma on Monday in the largest single-day commutation in our country’s history — and the rest of the nation could certainly learn something from it.

According to a news release from the governor’s office, these commutations happened because of a 2019 law that made it easier to review the sentences of offenders who had been charged with crimes that were considered felonies in the past but would not be today — for example, simple drug possession (now a misdemeanor) and low-level property crimes.

“This is a historical day for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, as we send the largest single-day commutation of sentences in our nation’s history to the governor’s desk,” Steven Bickley, executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, said in the release.

Bickley, of course, is absolutely right. This is a huge day — not just for the ambiguous ideal of “criminal-justice reform” but also for all of the families who have finally been reunited with their loved ones, as is obvious from so many of the beautiful pictures that we’ve seen from this day.

Make no mistake: As a libertarian, I believe that even Oklahoma’s law does not go far enough. Sure, I agree with the state that “simple drug possession” should not be a felony. But I also don’t think that it should be a misdemeanor. I think it should be, well, nothing — because I think that living in a “free country” should also include the freedom to decide to put something into your own body without being locked into a cage over it.

I know that this is radical for most people. I don’t know why, especially when I hear dissent coming from self-described “freedom-loving” people, but I realize that this is the case. That being said, I am still thrilled to see this happening in Oklahoma — because, although it’s not ideal, it’s a move in the right direction.

Keeping some people behind bars often hurts more than it helps — not only for the people who had been incarcerated and their families but also for society in general. The events of Monday mean that hundreds of people will have the chance to get their lives back and contribute to society — especially because the Oklahoma Department of Corrections hosted transition fairs for the soon-to-be-released inmates and also helped them get state-issued identification cards.

But it also meant something for Oklahoma state taxpayers. See, locking people up who present no real danger to society isn’t just unfair to those people and those who love them. It is, but it’s also unfair to the people who pay to keep them there: the taxpayers. Let me be clear: Locking someone up is not free. In fact, Oklahoma’s big commutation day saved the state an estimated $11.9 million.

If I had my way, there would be a massive overhaul of the system. If I had my way, no one would ever be separated from his or her family over a personal choice that involved only his or her body. I also understand, however, that this won’t be happening any time soon. In the meantime, though, I’d love to see more states follow Oklahoma’s lead and stop forcing taxpayers to take freedom away from people who present no threat to their residents.

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