Oklahoma held the title for the highest lockup rate in the country (1 in every 100 residents), but that began to change on Monday after some 500 non-violent offenders had their sentences commuted by sweeping criminal justice reform. ABC, CBS, and NBC celebrated the move during their evening newscasts but ignored the role of the heavily Republican-control legislature and the Republican governor in giving people another chance. This was a point the networks would’ve hammered home if it were Democrats.
ABC sprinted past the news, with anchor David Muir giving the largest mass-commutation in U.S. history a scant 19 seconds:
Hundreds of former prisoners in Oklahoma are marking their first taste of freedom tonight. Days after the state's parole board commuted the sentences of 527 inmates. The largest mass commutation in U.S. history. It comes after criminal justice reforms changed some low-level felonies to misdemeanors. The move will also save taxpayers nearly $12 million.
Over on the CBS Evening News, correspondent Omar Villafranca reported that Oklahoma’s criminal justice reform measures “made simple drug possession a misdemeanor and increased the dollar amount the make property theft crimes a felony.”
“Today's releases run counter to Oklahoma's tough-on-crime reputation. There are nearly 26,000 sitting in the Sooner state's prisons. It also has one of the highest female incarceration rates in the country, something Governor Kevin Stitt wants the change,” he added.
Villafranca played a soundbite of Governor Stitt saying, “We hope they get back into society and they don't come back to this place,” but he in no way noted that Stitt was a Republican. He concluded that the reforms would also “save the state nearly $12 million.”
On NBC Nightly News, correspondent Ron Mott went into more detail about how the reforms were passed and help the folks released find housing and jobs, but conveniently left out key details that would mean the network would have to credit Republicans.
After explaining the case of one Oklahoma woman, Mott noted the reforms were passed via ballot initiatives “by Oklahoma voters in 2016.” The key detail he left out was that the ballot initiatives only covered future cases and not those already incarcerated.
But, as the Fox News Channel’s Jeff Paul reported on Special Report that same evening: “It comes after voters in 2016 approved a pair of ballot measures that classified low-level drug and property crime felonies making them misdemeanors. Lawmakers then voted to make it retroactive.”
For those unfamiliar with the Oklahoma State legislator, Democrats only controlled nine of their 48 Senate seats and only about a quarter of the 101 in House seat. That meant criminal justice reform in the state was largely a Republican-led initiative.
Mott actually spoke with one woman who heaped praise onto Stitt, but there was only an on-screen notation of his party affiliation. “I'm just so glad that Governor Stitt gave us this opportunity to be able to go home to our families,” the woman told him.
The transcript is below, click "expand" to read:
ABC’s World News Tonight
November 4, 2019
6:39:16 p.m. Eastern
DAVID MUIR: Hundreds of former prisoners in Oklahoma are marking their first taste of freedom tonight. Days after the state's parole board commuted the sentences of 527 inmates. The largest mass commutation in U.S. history. It comes after criminal justice reforms changed some low-level felonies to misdemeanors. The move will also save taxpayers nearly $12 million.
CBS Evening News
November 4, 2019
6:42:23 p.m. Eastern
NORAH O’DONNELL: Freedom came today for close to 500 prison inmates in Oklahoma. It was the largest single mass release in U.S. history. All had been locked up for low-level crimes. Omar Villafranca shows us how some are celebrating their second chance tonight.
[Cuts to video]
OMAR VILLAFRANCA: One by one these now-former Oklahoma inmates hugged their loved ones.
VILLAFRANCA: Patrina Hunt cried in her daughter's arms. Hunt had served almost half of a ten-year sentence for drug possession and theft. The 22-year-old is now free in time to celebrate her daughter's birthday.
PATRINA HUNT: I am very blessed to let this happen and for this to happen to me and my family, an I'm just so glad to see my family.
VILLAFRANCA: The 527 total commuted sentences are part of sweeping statewide criminal justice reforms which made simple drug possession a misdemeanor and increased the dollar amount the make property theft crimes a felony.
Today's releases run counter to Oklahoma's tough-on-crime reputation. There are nearly 26,000 sitting in the Sooner state's prisons. It also has one of the highest female incarceration rates in the country, something Governor Kevin Stitt wants the change.
GOVERNOR KEVIN STITT (R): We hope they get back into society and they don't come back to this place.
VILLAFRANCA: As for Hunt, she's looking forward to a second chance for her 7-year-old daughter.
HUNT: I'm very young. I have a lot of things I'm changing in my life. And she's going to have the teach me as I go.
[Cuts back to live]
VILLAFRANCA: The 527 who had their sentences commuted are only a small fraction of the Oklahoma prison population, but now that they are out, it will save the state nearly $12 million. Norah?
O’DONNELL: All right, Omar, thank you.
NBC Nightly News
November 4, 2019
7:12:19 p.m. Eastern
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: This was a historic day for hundreds of inmates in Oklahoma. Non-violent offenders freed in what's believed to be the largest ever single-day prison release in U.S. history. Ron Mott with the story now.
[Cuts to video]
RON MOTT: Moving day in Oklahoma in more ways than one. Hundreds of state prisoners walking into loved one's arms today. For Laurie Scott, a day to behold.
LAURIE SCOTT: I don't want to never put him down.
MOTT: Meeting her grandson Jasper for the first time.
Is there some new hope that you have that you can make it this time?
SCOTT: Yes, yes, God’s not done yet. He's doing -- he's giving us the chance to be able to do something different with our life.
MOTT: Scott is just one of more than 400 inmates let out early. She served less than a year of a 12-year sentence for repeated drug possession violations, once a felony here downgraded to a misdemeanor by Oklahoma voters in 2016.
Until today, Oklahoma had the nation's highest lockup rate with 1 in 100 residents confined at any given time. In all, more than 500 non-violent offenders had their sentences reduced.
GOVERNOR KEVIN STITT (R): This is the first day of the rest of your life. [ Applause ]
MOTT: Inmates were given help finding housing and jobs.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm just so glad that Governor Stitt gave us this opportunity to be able to go home to our families.
UNIDENTIFIED YOUNG MAN: Just great glad to have you back. It’s great.
MOTT: Heading home from behind bars, eyeing a better future. Ron Mott, NBC News, Taft, Oklahoma.