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Prosecutors blame prison overcrowding in Oklahoma on "squatters"

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As legislators struggle again this year to find acceptable ways to reduce prison overcrowding, hundreds of inmates will choose to stay locked up.

About 400 prison inmates a month in Oklahoma waive parole hearings, records show.

Those criminals are choosing to stay months more in prison so they can complete their sentences and be released without parole restrictions or supervision.

Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn describes these inmates as "squatters." He contends they are the true reason prisons are so overcrowded.

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An inmate stands outside his cell at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City, Monday, May 15, 2017. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-9fb73bbde82f7afeb1974add56ef2f29.jpg" alt="Photo - An inmate stands outside his cell at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City, Monday, May 15, 2017. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman " title="An inmate stands outside his cell at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City, Monday, May 15, 2017. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman "><figcaption>An inmate stands outside his cell at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City, Monday, May 15, 2017. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman </figcaption></figure>

Some who are eligible for parole choose to remain in prison a year longer or more, he said.

"It was the offenders taking advantage of the system that's really caused this backlog," Mashburn said. "They don't want to have the requirements of parole. They just want to discharge and be done so they're not having to toe the line when they hit the streets."

Prosecutors this year pushed for legislation barring inmates from waiving parole review. DAs wanted the proposed prohibition to be part of the agreement they reached with the governor and legislative leaders on criminal justice reform bills. Gov. Mary Fallin announced the deal March 5, calling it "a huge first step" toward the goal of reducing overcrowding.

The idea was struck down in part because the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board would have been overwhelmed by the extra work.

"We would sink, sink like a rock," the board's executive director, DeLynn Fudge, said.

She has been keeping statistics about waivers for more than a year.

About 600 inmates become eligible for parole a month, she said. Only about 200 choose to have parole hearings. The rest waive.

She said the board's 13 investigators are "barely making it" under the current workload.

Some months investigators already cannot see every inmate seeking parole, she said. Hearings are delayed in those instances.

Investigators are required to meet with each inmate seeking parole, review files and prepare detailed reports for the five board members. Among the details included in reports are any misconducts, violent behavior and participation in prison programs.

She said the board would need to hire twice as many investigators if every inmate eligible for parole had to be considered.

"Currently as staffed, it would be a massive problem," she said. "You would have to put money into the situation because you can't just change that. That was a concern that I expressed."

She said the Oklahoma Corrections Department also would need money to hire more parole officers to supervise an increase in parolees.

Mashburn acknowledged that the Pardon and Parole Board and Corrections Department would need more funding if a change was implemented. But he said the prison population potentially would be going down if the change had been in place five years ago.

He also said if the parole system was changed now "you would almost instantly see the savings."

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said a change would both save money and improve public safety.

He said allowing inmates to waive paroles causes the state to pay for their continued incarceration. He said inmates also are more likely to return to criminal behavior if they are released without supervision by parole officers.

"Our state ignores the fact that treatment and supervision must be invested in," Prater said.

The board itself decides whether to parole inmates with nonviolent offenses. The board makes recommendations to the governor on the parole of inmates with violent offenses.

Oklahoma inmates who waived parole consideration were interviewed for a study done in 2011 by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center.

"It was clear that these individuals had done the math," according to the final report on the study. "One person bluntly said, doing time 'is faster inside' than doing time on parole, since people on parole are not eligible to earn time off their sentence for good behavior."

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From the editor: The State of Oklahoma State of Oklahoma: By too many measures, Oklahoma falls short of the standard State of Oklahoma: State will soon be top in nation for incarceration State of Oklahoma: Drug possession law change slow to impact state incarceration rate State of Oklahoma:Prosecutors blame prison overcrowding in Oklahoma on "squatters" State of Oklahoma: Without funding, prison bills will go unpaid, director warns State of Oklahoma: Criminal justice reform advocates call on employers to hire more ex-prisoners State of Oklahoma: Oklahoma struggles to reduce domestic violence deaths

Nolan Clay

Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His... Read more ›

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