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Oklahoma Commutes More Than 500 Nonviolent Sentences Marking Largest Single-Day Commutation in US History

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  • Oklahoma released more than 460 inmates convicted of simple drug crimes or nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 on Monday.
  • In total, the state commuted the sentences of 524 prisoners, though some were not released on Monday because they had detainers.
  • The move is the largest mass commutation in U.S. history and is seen as a major step in prison reform for the state with the highest incarceration rate.

More Than 500 Sentences Commuted

After the state of Oklahoma commuted the sentences of more than 500 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, most of those inmates were released from prison on Monday.

The move follows Friday’s unanimous vote by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to commute the sentences of 527 prisoners. Republican Governor Kevin Stitt then announced he had approved 524 of the requests on Twitter and hailed the move as a “historic step towards criminal justice reform.” 

Of those inmates, about 460 were released on Monday, with the others having detainers against them. Nonetheless, the release is the largest mass commutation in U.S. history. 

Video from the Kate Barnard Community Correctional Center shows one inmate being released after a three-year incarceration and dropping her box of belongings as she embraces her daughter.

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. Prior to the commutation, Oklahoma prisons housed a population of more than 26,000. According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, more than 1 in 100 adults in Oklahoma are in prison at any given time.

The Pardon and Parole Board said the mass commutation is expected to save the state almost $12 million dollars by abbreviating the sentences of those inmates.

Prison Reform Gains Support Among Voters

Prison reform in Oklahoma gained traction in 2016 when voters approved a ballot measure known as Question 780, which reclassified certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, including simple drug crimes and nonviolent property crimes under $1,000.

At the same time, voters approved a co-measure, Question 781, which then allowed any savings earned from bypassing incarceration to go directly to counties for drug treatment and rehab services.

Both laws then went into effect in 2017, but they did not apply to people convicted of committing similar crimes before they went into effect, meaning those prisoners would still be considered felons on their record and they would still have to serve their sentence.

Retroactive Law Passes

In January this year, lawmakers proposed allowing Question 780 to apply retroactively, and in May, the proposal became law after finding bipartisan support.

According to Stitt, in addition to commuting the sentences of hundreds of inmates, the retroactive would also reduce the sentences of another 1,400 people serving time for different crimes. 

The law went into effect on Friday, and 814 prisoners then appealed to have their sentences commuted in a special one-stage appeal process. In all, 287 inmates were denied, with the board saying it denied certain appeals if an inmate had offenses like a record of serious misconduct or a registered victim. It also denied appeals to sex offenders and violent offenders.

Under the new law, Stitt said he expects the state to commute about 2,000 people by the end of the year. 

Prisoners’ Reentry into Society

Because this massive commutation was anticipated once the retroactive law took effect, the state’s Department of Corrections also saw another first when it held what it called “re-entry fairs” at 28 different prisons.

Those fairs were aimed as a way to connect inmates to housing and counseling support prior to their release. Prisoners were also able to get state ID’s or even licenses before being released, which is expected to be a massive help to them as such actions can be difficult after leaving prison.

“With this vote, we are fulfilling the will of Oklahomans,” Steve Bickley, executive director of the board, said on Friday. “However, from Day One, the goal of this project has been more than just the release of low-level, nonviolent offenders, but the successful re-entry of these individuals back into society.”

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NBC News) (OKC Fox)

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Scott Peterson’s Murder Convictions To Be Re-examined

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  • Scott Peterson was convicted in 2004 of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn child.
  • He was sentenced to death for the crimes, but the California Supreme Court overturned the death sentence in August of this year after finding that the trial court improperly dismissed potential jurors. The court did, however, uphold the convictions.
  • Now, the CA Supreme Court has ordered the San Mateo County Superior Court to review the convictions and determine whether Peterson should be given a new trial on the grounds that one juror “committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings.”
  • That juror had not disclosed the fact that she was granted a restraining order in 2000 against her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend for harassing her when she was pregnant.

Peterson’s Death Sentence Was Previously Overturned

The California Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a review of Scott Peterson’s 2004 convictions for murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son.

Peterson was sentenced to death by lethal injection for those crimes in 2005, but in August of this year, the California Supreme Court overturned his death sentence. 

We reject Peterson’s claim that he received an unfair trial as to guilt and thus affirm his convictions for murder,“ the court said at the time. “But before the trial began, the trial court made a series of clear and significant errors in jury selection.”

As far as what errors the court is talking about, it said the trial judge wrongly discharged prospective jurors who expressed opposition to capital punishment but said they would be willing to impose it.

Court to Decide on Potential New Trial

Now, weeks later, the California Supreme Court has ordered that the case return to the San Mateo County Superior Court to determine whether Peterson should be given a new trial on the ground that a juror “committed prejudicial misconduct by not disclosing her prior involvement with other legal proceedings, including but not limited to being the victim of a crime.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, that juror had not shared the fact that she was granted a restraining order in 2000 against her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend for harassing her when she was pregnant. 

Peterson’s lawyers even say that when all potential jurors were asked whether they had ever been a victim of a crime or involved in a lawsuit, the juror said no to both questions.

They also say she was one of the two holdouts for convicting Peterson of first-degree murder for killing his unborn child, with the jury ultimately convicting Peterson of the first-degree murder of Laci and the second-degree murder of the unborn child. 

For now, it’s up to the San Mateo Court to decide what happens next, but the California Supreme Court did say that prosecutors could again seek the death penalty for Peterson at a new hearing.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Los Angeles Times) (NBC News)

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CDC Warns Household Gatherings Are Driving Coronavirus Spread as U.S. Cases Increase

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  • Coronavirus cases are on the rise in the United States, and the country could be on track to climb to a third peak.
  • Nearly 60,000 new cases were reported on Wednesday. The daily average of reported cases has gone up 23% compared to two weeks ago, according to data from the New York Times.
  • The CDC is warning that small household gatherings are contributing to the spread of COVID-19 and that people should be extra vigilant heading into the holidays.
  • Superspreading events in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere have also led to dozens of cases. Some of these events were held at colleges, while another was at a sweet 16 where people opted to not wear masks.

Small Gatherings Linked to COVID-19 Spread

Coronavirus cases are on the increase in many areas of the United States and could even be climbing towards a potential third peak. With this, experts are warning that household gatherings could be driving the spread. 

The U.S. as a whole reported nearly 60,000 new cases on Wednesday. The daily average of reported cases has gone up 23% compared to two weeks ago, according to data from the New York Times. Cases are especially on the incline in the midwest. 

While cases are not as high as they were in July, when the country saw its peak in infections, the upward trend is still troubling. Health leaders are warning that gatherings are playing a role in transmission and that people should be hyper-aware as the holidays roll around. 

“In the public square, we’re seeing a higher degree of vigilance and mitigation steps in many jurisdictions,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said in a phone call obtained by CNN. “But what we’re seeing as the increasing threat right now is actually acquisition of infection through small household gatherings. Particularly with Thanksgiving coming up, we think it’s really important to stress the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household setting.”

In the last few weeks, gatherings leading to superspreading events have been making headlines. The most famous of which is the White House outbreak that started in the Rose Garden during Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. This resulted in the President, First Lady, and numerous other White House officials becoming infected with COVID-19. 

Superspreading Events 

Superspreading events are happening all around the country, though. 37 coronavirus cases are now connected to a sweet 16 party that was held in Long Island at the end of September. That party violated emergency health codes by hosting 81 people, according to NBC News. Local guidelines state that gatherings cannot exceed 50 people or 50% of a venue’s capacity, whichever is smaller. 

Reports indicate that social distancing and mask-wearing were nonexistent at the event. The party was held at a local hotel which is now facing two fines. One comes from the state of New York for $10,000 and the other is a $2,000 fine from Suffolk County. 

In New Rochelle, New York an outbreak among athletes at Iona College has caused classes to move online. The school released a statement on Sunday explaining that the outbreak is tied to a single isolated event. Local reports indicate that this event has gotten as many as 65 people on the school’s campus sick. 

In New Jersey, an event has led to 125 coronavirus cases at Monmouth University. The school released a statement Friday explaining that the campus had a notable increase in cases, warranting thorough contact tracing. 

“It appears that this increase in cases among students was tied to an off-campus event hosted two weeks ago,” the school said. “An overwhelming majority of the recent cases we have seen can be traced back to this isolated super-spreader event.”

Monmouth University will now be increasing test efforts as a result. 

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (ABC News) (The Hill)

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Early Voting Sees Record-Breaking Turnouts, Some States Already Surpass 2016 Numbers

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  • Early voting turnout for the 2020 Presidential Election, both by mail and in-person, has broken records across multiple states.
  • California and Texas, for example, have each surpassed 1 million votes cast, smashing previous records at this point in an election.
  • Battleground states have been particularly affected, with many having either surpassed their 2016 early voting numbers or are on the verge of doing soon.

Record Breaking Turnout

The 2020 Presidential Election has set records with its early-voting turnout in multiple states and is on track to do the same in nearly all of the 39 states where early voting has started.

Likely fueling this trend is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted states to expand mail-in voting efforts to accommodate those who wish to lower their chance of exposure.

California, for instance, reported that as of Thursday, over 1.7 million ballots have already been cast for 2020 Presidential election. That’s the most number of confirmed ballots collected at this point in any state election. Around 435,000 of those ballots are from Los Angeles county alone, so that number may skyrocket as the other populous areas of the state start having their ballots collected.

It’s possible that this election will have the highest voter turnout in the state because California still has 20 million more ballots to go.

Early Voting in General

Outside of California, there’s been historic early voting numbers. While not every state has sent mail-in ballots to all voters, many have opened up for early voting by mail or in-person. Texas, for example, opened up early in-person voting Wednesday while mail-in voting has been happening for about a month now. As of Wednesday, about 649,000 ballots have been cast either by mail or in-person in the state’s 10 largest counties.

Those counties represent 57% of registered voters. To put that in perspective, as of the first day of in-person voting in 2016, only about 497,000 ballots were cast in those same counties. Across the entire state, over 1 million votes have been cast so far.

Democrats are hoping that these historic numbers are a good sign for them; Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement, “Texas Democrats are rising. After the first day of early voting, it’s clear that energy is on our side and Texans are ready to turn our state blue.”

“With the energy seen among Texas Democrats, we will win the White House, take our John Cornyn, flip several Congressional seats, break the supermajority in the Texas Senate, flip the Texas House, and win hundreds of local elections across the state.”

Republicans weren’t too worried, saying that these numbers seemed to be on-par with a competitive election. Their voter-data expert told the Texas Tribune, “Right now all we have is one day of early voting under our belts, and we have many more to go, so I’d equate it to a horse race. The Democrats got a good start out the gate, but we’ve still got a whole race to run.”

While Texas is unlikely to flip, there are some important battleground states that have seen huge early-voting numbers. Take Pennsylvania, which has seen more early voters this election than in the entirety of 2016.

Other battleground states, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, and Michigan are also on par to pass their 2016 early-voting numbers according to local election data.

In Florida, this is particularly notable because so far the state has only had absentee voting. In-person early voting doesn’t begin until October 19.

See What Others Are Saying: (Los Angeles Times) (Texas Tribune) (Wall Street Journal)

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