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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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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban

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  • President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil. 
  • Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
  • The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions. 

Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.

That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.

Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.

The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”

It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead. 

Biden To Block Trump’s Order

Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.

“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.  In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.

With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect. 

It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.

Source: Whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions

Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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New COVID-19 Variant Could Become Dominant in the U.S. by March, CDC Warns

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  • The CDC warned Friday that a new highly transmissible COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.
  • The strain was first reported in the United Kingdom in December and is now in at least 10 states.
  • The CDC used a modeled trajectory to discover how quickly the variant could spread in the U.S. and said that this could threaten the country’s already overwhelmed healthcare system.

CDC Issues Warning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the new COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.

While it is not known to be more deadly, it does spread at a higher rate, which is troubling considering the condition the U.S. is already in. Cases and deaths are already on the rise in nearly every state and globally, 2 million lives have been lost to the coronavirus. 

The variant was first reported in the United Kingdom in mid-December. It is now in 30 countries, including the U.S., where cases have been located in at least ten states. Right now, only 76 cases of this variant have been confirmed in the U.S., but experts believe that number is likely much higher and said it will increase significantly in the coming weeks. It is already a dominant strain in parts of the U.K.

Modeled trajectory shows that growth in the U.S. could be so fast that it dominates U.S. cases just three months into the new year. This could pose a huge threat to our already strained healthcare system.

Mitigating Spread of Variant

“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and can accelerate outbreaks in the U.S. in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC told the New York Times. “We’re sounding the alarm and urging people to realize the pandemic is not over and in no way is it time to throw in the towel.”

The CDC advises that health officials use this time to limit spread and increase vaccination as much as possible in order to mitigate the impact this variant will have. Experts believe that current vaccines will protect against this strain.

“Effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential,” the CDC said in their report.

“Strategic testing of persons without symptoms but at higher risk of infection, such as those exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or who have frequent unavoidable contact with the public, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (New York Times) (NBC News)

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