By William Earl Tolbert, Journalism Guild Writer
Oklahoma has released 462 inmates in the wake of a law change that reclassified numerous felonies as misdemeanors.
It was one of the largest single-day releases of inmates in U.S. history, according to the New York Times.
Oklahoma has one of the nation’s highest per-capita incarceration rates, the Times reported Nov. 4.
The state voted to reclassify simple drug possessions and low-level property crimes as misdemeanors, rather than felonies, to help reduce its incarcerated population. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill earlier this year that applied the decision retroactively.
“This event is another mark on our historic timeline as we move the needle in criminal justice reform, and my administration remains committed to working with Oklahomans to pursue bold change that will offer our fellow citizens a second chance while also keeping our communities and streets safe,” said Stitt in a statement to the Times.
The governor’s office expects the mass-commutation to save the state $12 million.
The action was celebrated for its bipartisan nature by Isi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“What’s happening today is an important step forward, but much more is needed,” Ofer added.
Screams of joy from family members and friends welcomed the 70 women leaving the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correction Center in Taft, Okla.
A newly liberated prisoner, Tina Martin, 52, would have served another seven years in prison.
“It means the world to me,” said Martin. “It was God that got me here and the governor.”
Julie Fair Loth, 28, who was serving time for drug possession, hugged her mother and her husband outside the correction center.
“I can’t even put words to it,” Loth said.
Loth told the Times she was “overwhelmed” to reunite with her family.
“Our concern is that without the necessary community support, we could see these people back in the criminal justice system within six months,” said Andrew Speno, director of Oklahoma for Right on Crime, a conservative organization working to reduce incarceration rates.
Speno praised the commutations but urged further action.
The parole panel considered 814 case files and recommended 527 for commutation. Sixty-five were being held on detainers, leaving 642 inmates to be released.