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Oklahoma’s governor on 2nd chances and reducing mass incarceration

In Oklahoma, 462 people left prison Monday in the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history. Republican Governor Kevin Stitt had signed off on their release based on the recommendation of the state’s Pardon and Parole Board. Oklahoma has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, and its officials are now considering other criminal justice reforms. Gov. Stitt joins William Brangham to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    Four hundred sixty-two people walked out of prison in Oklahoma yesterday. It set off joyous scenes of people reuniting with their families.

    It came just days after Republican Governor Kevin Stitt signed off on the recommendation of the state's pardon and parole board to commute their sentences. It was the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history.

    Oklahoma, which has ranked as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, is now looking at other criminal justice reforms.

    Governor Kevin Stitt joins me now.

    Governor, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much for being here.

    Can you just take us back yesterday? Those looked like some really joyous celebrations going on at that prison. What was that scene like for you?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    You know, it was really fantastic. My wife and I were there.

    And just to welcome all these people across our state, but that specific women's prison, them leaving their past behind, and getting a second chance on life, the joy and the tears, the family, the hugs, the reuniting with their families, it was just an amazing feeling.

  • William Brangham:

    You said to them, to that gathered group of women who had just been released, it's up to you now to make sure that you don't end up back in jail.

    And that is certainly true. I wonder what you think. What's the role, if any, for the state other and agencies to help that not be a revolving door?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    Well, you know, we actually brought reentry fairs to the prisons before they got out to make sure that, when they do get out, they knew where they were going to be staying.

    So we had housing, we had education opportunities. In a lot of cases, folks will have jobs when they get out.

    But also just simple stuff. Never been done before. And I brought the Department of Public Safety to the prison, so they could have driver's licenses and state I.D.s when they got out, because things that we take for granted are such an impediment to get a job or actually get into school or all the different things that are going to be successful.

    So that was my challenge to them is, this is your opportunity. There are plenty of churches, nonprofits that want to stand behind and stand beside you to help you have a great, prosperous future.

  • William Brangham:

    Some Oklahomans might look at what happened yesterday and say, those people were in prison for a reason.

    And help me understand how you, as a conservative Republican in Oklahoma, came to this idea and thought that this was a good idea.

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    Well, these were all low-level drug offenses.

    And we're number one in the country in incarceration rates. We have been for decades. And when I became governor, I said, this is ridiculous. We don't have any different issues in our state than they have in any other state.

    So we're number one in something. We should be number 50 at that. So I started going through, what is it going to take to actually start moving the needle?

    And I'm so excited. We're no longer number one in that. And we're going to continue to move the needle and give people second chances. We always think about public safety, but these are folks that we were just mad at. We weren't really afraid of them.

    And I think those folks had served their time, and it was time to give them a second chance. And Oklahomans agree with me on this. It's not a Republican or Democrat issue. This just makes sense for our state for sure, and I think for our country.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you have argued in the past that there's an economic argument to this, to letting people go with these low-level offenses.

    Make that economic argument to me.

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    Well, with these 450 folks that we let out yesterday, we're saving the state $12 million.

    I would rather use those funds for education purposes. A lot of times, it's — there's some mental illness, there's some drug addictions. So we appropriated in the last section — or the last session $10 million to some type of programs to help people get back on their feet.

    But, at the end of the day, it's about jobs. It's about reuniting with their families. There's such an utter drain on society. When you have heavy incarceration, you have got folks in the — you have got children in foster care. So it really is more than just the $12 million to incarcerate them.

    There's so many other drags on the state and on other resources, that I just wanted to approach it differently.

  • William Brangham:

    What do you say to some of the critics of this whole movement who say, look, locking people up when they do bad things is important, and that that serves as a deterrent to crime, and that this whole movement is a mistake?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    Well, listen, we're going to — we're going to deter crime. We're going to make sure that people are punished, and we're going to be a rule of law,.

    My state, we will obey the law. We're going to respect our police officers. But there's a difference between 15 years for a simple possession — and that was a lot of the cases that we were seeing when we looked through the docket — vs. second chances.

    So we want to treat those drug addictions, and we want to get them second chances. And so we were very diligent when we looked through this case law. And we made sure that we didn't let any dangerous person out. These were all low-level drug offenders.

  • William Brangham:

    Is this an argument that — I know you have been part of the National Governors Association and a lot of those meetings about this issue.

    Is this an argument that you make to your fellow governors? And, if so, what is the reception that you get when you say these things?

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    I mean, I don't know specifically what other states thing, but I think this is something that, across party lines, Republicans, Democrats, we all think that certain people need second chances.

    We cannot continue to incarcerate at the levels we have for these nonviolent drug offenses. And so that's what we're doing in our state, is we're classifying what is a violent and a nonviolent offense, and then we can have sentencing reform off of that and make sure that we're fair with everyone.

    I mean, one of the ladies that I met that came out of prison, her name is Tess. And her mom died when she was 13. She got addicted to drugs. She got a 15-year sentence for a simple possession. She's been in for eight years. She got her GED while she was in prison. Now she's going to be able to go to college. We reunited her with her family.

    Those are the stories that we need to help people get back on their feet, when they're not violent, when we're not afraid of them, and it's a drug addiction in a lot of cases.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, thank you very much for being here.

  • Gov. Kevin Stitt:

    Thank you.

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