On Nov. 1, 2019, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board (OPPB) voted unanimously to recommend the commutation of the sentences of 527 people serving time in state prisons. Transition fairs were hosted at more than two dozen facilities, where state agencies and nonprofits helped those inmates to obtain IDs, debit cards, medications, and more resources as they reintegrated into society. It had taken months of coordination among the OPPB, the OK Departments of Corrections and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the state’s district attorneys, and others, but presiding over the efforts — which represented the largest single-day commutation in American history — was Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Commutations are generally reserved for the final months of a political term, when the leader need not worry as much about being blamed if a departing inmate commits a criminal act. Stitt, meanwhile, began working toward this landmark day within a few weeks of swearing in, when he signed HB 1269 to make the reclassification of some drug-related and nonviolent offenses retroactive.
The governor might not be so worried about typical politics because he’s not a typical politician: This role represents his first in government. Previously, Stitt served as founder and CEO of Gateway, a nationwide mortgage company with over 1,500 employees. His 2018 campaign emphasized Oklahoma’s incarceration rate and overcrowded system, which had also been a focus of his predecessor and fellow Republican, Gov. Mary Fallin. His first two-and-a-half years in office brought the commutations as well as reform around occupational licenses, funding for diversion programs and substance-abuse services, automatic expungement, state identification, earned-time credits, and more.
Up for reelection later this year, Stitt has maintained his commitment to further criminal justice reform. We sat down with the governor to understand why these issues are so important to him, taking on the state’s district attorneys, and what legislation he plans to tackle next.
What unique issues did Oklahoma face with regard to incarceration when you first came into office?
Gov. Kevin Stitt
As a businessman, I have a lot of metrics I look at. When I was running for governor, I realized that we were last place — we were 50th out of 50 states in incarceration rates. We incarcerated more men and women than any other state, and the United States incarcerates more than any other country, so we were No. 1 in the world. I’m like, OK, either we have worse people than everybody else, or we’ve got some bad policies. I knew it was the bad policies.
I want to be top 10 in everything that we do, and so I’ve got a goal to be top 10 in lowest incarceration rates and top 10 in public safety. Today, we’ve got 5,000 fewer people incarcerated than we did when we took over. I’ve closed one private prison and two state prisons. We’ve saved the taxpayers tons of money by doing so. And right now, we are leading the nation in reducing recidivism, or, said another way, we have the least number of people who have been incarcerated going back into prison. We’re the best in the nation in helping people stay out of prison once they’ve been in. We still have a way to go, but we’ve made tremendous progress in three and a half years.
With so many issues that the state is facing, especially over the last two years, why was reform such a priority for your administration?
Gov. Kevin Stitt
Well, I have 15 cabinet secretaries, and it’s not the only thing we’re focused on. We are No. 5 right now in bridge conditions. We want to have the best tourism department, the best park department, and I’m working on education reform. We reformed our Medicaid health care system. Our state’s economy is doing well, we have low unemployment, we have the largest savings account in our state’s history. We’re No. 11 in people moving to our state. I’m focused on a lot of areas, but the reason I put a focus on our criminal justice system is because we were dead last. I mean, if we were 25th, I would’ve gone after something else harder. But since we were 50 out of 50, I was like, “This makes no sense.” it was an area where I believed I could make a difference.
When you think about the generational issues — so my wife, First Lady Sarah Stitt, is really focused on them — of DHS [Department of Human Services], you’ve got kids that are outside of the home from the parents. That’s a drain on society. You create a cycle: If parents are incarcerated, kids end up incarcerated. So the generational impact we can make here is going to be unbelievable for the future of our state. Winning begets winning. So that’s one of the reasons I focused on it as well.
What kind of blowback, if any, has there been from your party and from the public? How aware was the average Oklahoman of this issue?
Gov. Kevin Stitt
There hasn’t been any blowback from the public or my party, except for when my opponents used it against me in the Republican primary. Normally a Republican does not come out and support criminal justice reform, but I tell people that, yes, we’re going to be a law and order state. But we’re also talking about fairness, and locking up people that we’re afraid of, not just who we’re mad at.
So I’ve been reforming the technical [parole] violations. I went and did a site visit myself with a parole officer, because I wanted to see exactly what was happening when they met with these folks. That whole system needs to be redesigned as well, and that’s what I’m working on.
We did the largest commutation in U.S. history in 2019. Most governors don’t even touch that until they’re at their end of office because they’re afraid they’re going to get hit out of it. I was shocked when they told me it was the largest in U.S. history.
We found out that [recently incarcerated people] didn’t have driver’s licenses or IDs when they left. And so, we passed what’s called the Sarah Stitt Act, which brings certain services for six months before you’re going to be released: It’s education, it’s how to get your children back, it’s [IDs], it’s educational opportunities, housing opportunities. That’s made a huge difference as well.
Are there certain accomplishments or certain legislation of which you’re particularly proud?
Gov. Kevin Stitt
That one, the Sarah Stitt Act, to bring those services back. Because when you get out, you need an [ID] to do anything — to go meet back with your parole officer, to get a job, to get into school. We made that possible before they get out of prison, and that was important.
Then, automating the expungement process is something we’ve worked on, because a lot of these folks are stuck and can’t get certain jobs. This licensing issue is a problem, so I’ve been working to make sure they can get their CDL license. Now, even before you get out of prison, we’re starting to train for CDL licenses, which is 18-wheelers. One of our trucking companies in Oklahoma told me that their number-one highest W2 last year was a female truck driver that was formerly incarcerated. We’re bringing that ability for them, when they get out, to be able to have their trucking license, because there’s a workforce shortage in that industry right now.
Another one is allowing offenders on supervised parole to earn good-time credits to decrease the length of their supervision. One of the things that was interesting to me, when I started digging into the parole system and I finally got the numbers — it’s hard to get these numbers. The bureaucracy doesn’t want to show them to you. But did you know that in Oklahoma, if you meet with the parole officer, 23.5% percent of the time they go back to prison? If you’re not meeting with the parole officer, it’s 18% recidivism. It’s a messed-up system! It should be totally the opposite. That’s why I wanted to go see what these parole officers were doing. That makes no sense. That’s not the way it should be. You’re better off to not meet with a parole officer than you are meeting with a parole officer? That whole system needs to be revised and allowing those credits to be earned is a good start.
I found out that our fines, fees, and court costs — that’s how our court system was funded. Our district attorneys and our court system. I said, “Guys, from a business perspective, this makes no sense. This is a perverse incentive.” The court system is incentivized to put heavy fines on people. These folks would get out of prison and have $10-to-20,000 worth of fines and fees. That made no sense to me. They’ve served their time. They’re out. Why do they also have now $20,000 [to pay]? That might be as well be $20 million to somebody that’s going to be making minimum wage. Then you’re going to throw them back in prison because they can’t pay? That’s stupid.
I worked with the legislature and changed that to make sure that fines, fees, and court costs go to the legislature, and then the legislature appropriates the money to the district attorneys, which is a huge change. Now district attorneys and the court system aren’t incentivized to fine people heavier. You see what I’m saying? That was a huge, huge change.
Why do you think justice reform is a bipartisan issue, or why should it be a bipartisan issue?
Gov. Kevin Stitt
I tell people: Here’s the deal. Let Washington, D.C., play politics. I’m the governor of Oklahoma. Let’s make our state top 10. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat — we want safe communities. We want lower taxes. We want the best schools and education for our kids. We want the best economy. We want the best access to healthcare. And again, we don’t want the state taking care of a whole bunch of kids in our DHS system. We want happy, healthy families.
Are there people that need to be in prison? One hundred percent, and we’re not shrinking from that at all. Again, we are going to be a law and order state. But we know that the pendulum in Oklahoma swung a little bit too far on this, and we’re getting back control of it.
What are some of the reform issues that you’re interested in tackling next?
Gov. Kevin Stitt
Eliminating various fees assessed to the criminal defendants is something that I’m trying to get done, along with working to reform the pardon and parole process.
There are cottage industries that don’t want some of these systems to change. It’s a business.
Gov. Kevin Stitt
I have to fight like crazy to get some changes that make common sense to me.
Part of the process of running for governor is you get to meet these people. When I was in Tulsa, a guy at this restaurant where I would go to and have coffee with people, he goes, “Kevin, can I tell you my story?” He said, “I used to be into drugs. My girlfriend and I got clean. Then she relapsed. I was trying to help her out. She brought one of her drug dealers over to the house.” He goes, “I kicked him out. We got into a fight. I get arrested for assault, so I get thrown in jail. I get a $2,000 bail. That might have well been $2 million for me. I lose my truck. I’m in jail for four months, and then I get acquitted.” That’s troubling to me because here is a guy who has lost his job, his truck, and he defaults on his house — but he wasn’t convicted of a crime.
So those are things that we have to make sense of. I know that district attorneys, they see the worst of the worst. That’s why I think we need to have people who call balls and strikes for everybody. You can’t let one division of your organization dominate. That’s what you learn in business: You’ve got your IT department, your sales department, your risk department, your legal department, and the CEO has to call the balls and strikes. What makes sense for one division shouldn’t dominate the whole company. The district attorneys, their job is different than my job, but you have to have balance in there. And I think that’s what we’re missing a lot of times.