KFOR INVESTIGATION: Oklahoma inmate left in limbo over policy confusion

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Tony Burris is a convicted drug dealer who is expected to be released from federal prison next year.

KFOR’s Ali Meyer has been looking into Burris’ case for several months.

His road to freedom has been clouded with confusion.

Incarceration in Oklahoma is costly.

According to the Secretary of Public Safety, Oklahoma spends $21,280 per inmate in FY2020.

The total cost of incarceration for FY2020 was $524,989,500, which does not include Probation and Parole, Jail Backup, Community Sentencing or Prison Industries.

Tony Burris’ story is the story of one man’s road to freedom; it is also a cautionary tale about taxpayer waste.

Photo goes with story
Tony Burris, following his arrest.

In 2004, Burris pleaded guilty to drug crimes in district and federal court.

He did not push for trial. He admitted his role in six felonies in Oklahoma County and 12 federal crimes.

“Tony was a drug dealer, and Tony got caught selling drugs and dealing drugs,” said Burris’ defense attorney, Billy Bock, who represented Burris on the state charges.

Burris was sentenced to 20 years behind bars for the federal crimes, plus 30 years for the state crimes.

The sentences were to run concurrently, at the same time as his federal sentence.

Burris has been serving his time in a federal penitentiary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Last year, Tony Burris was paroled in absentia.

The Oklahoma State Board of Pardon and Parole ruled unanimously 5-0 in his favor.

In absentia parole is a special parole process for Oklahoma inmates who cannot be present for their parole hearing.

Burris wasn’t present because he was in federal prison in Texas.

“He has served his time,” Bock said. “It’s time to let him go. Turn the chapter from one chapter to the next and let him have a new beginning.”

So, imagine Burris’ shock earlier this year when his case worker at the Bureau of Prisons notified him that upon his release from federal prison he would be sent back to his county of conviction, to the Oklahoma County Detention Center.

Burris was told he would be incarcerated at the Oklahoma County Jail until the Department of Corrections transported him to Lexington State Prison to be processed.

“I just don’t understand why I would have to go to the Department of Corrections and be processed when I already made parole,” said Burris by phone. “So, I’m feeling pretty down. It’s just a sharp blow in the gut to feel like after I do (sic) all my time, I still can’t get out.”

According to the Department of Corrections, processing takes three to five day under normal circumstances.

Unofficially, some with knowledge of the system say it takes weeks or even months.

“A lot goes into processing an inmate and into taking responsibility for one of our Oklahoma citizens,” said Department of Corrections spokesperson, Justin Wolf. “(Inmates) go through a complete medical workup, a psychological workup. They go through a level of service inventory which is our validated instrument to measure their case needs when they’re in our custody.”

Why would the state consider wasting taxpayer dollars transporting and housing and processing an inmate who has already been paroled?

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Attorney Billy Bock

“All that to process him to say, ‘Ok, you’ve already served your time. We’ve got to kick you out of here,'” said Bock. “It’s just a big ole waste.”

News 4 started asking questions on April 27, 2020, in an email to the Department of Corrections (DOC).

DOC sent us to Oklahoma County, where we inquired with the Oklahoma County Jail, Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office and Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office.

News 4 was provided the Justice and Sentencing documents for Tony Burris, but no explanation about why the detainers were in place for a paroled inmate who had no outstanding fees to the court.

These detainers were particularly important for Tony Burris because they were the only obstacle for him to move into a community sentencing phase of his federal incarceration.

According to attorney Billy Bock, those detainers were “red flags” on Burris’ incarceration record.

News 4’s Ali Meyer reached out to Pardon and Parole Board Director, Tom Bates, who sent the following statement:

In-Absentia parole is a consideration for parole given to those offenders who are being held for Oklahoma convictions in another state jurisdiction or in the federal system. Eligibility is based on statute and meeting minimum service requirements, and the application is available on the Pardon and Parole Board website.

Tony L. Burris applied for in-absentia parole in August of 2020 and received a 5-0 vote granting parole at the Board’s November 2020 meeting, with an effective date of December 8, 2020. Parole was granted on four Oklahoma County cases and the parole certificate is available at the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s website.

TOM BATES, PARDON AND PAROLE BOARD DIRECTOR

Seven months after Burris’ parole, Oklahoma County still had not released the detainers.

In May, News 4 reached out to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Secretary of Public Safety.

Tricia Everest explained, the confusion on Tony Burris’ case may stem from a change in policy for parole in absentia.

The change went into effect in November of 2020, the same month the Pardon and Parole Board voted to parole Tony Burris.

According to the policy provided by Everest, DOC is now required to inform the county of conviction about any inmates who are granted parole in absentia.

It is the responsibility of the county of conviction to release the detainers.

“We’re doing it the way it needs to be done because these are the kind of efficiencies we are always striving for here at the department of corrections,” said Wolf.

The Department of Corrections was quick to point the efficiency of the new policy, there was little explanation about the delay.

Ali Meyer’s first email to DOC was sent April 27, which was more than four months after Burris’ parole.

According to DOC records, the agency notified Oklahoma County about the parole in absentia by email on April 30 and by phone “a few days before.”

Despite being informed about Burris’ parole, Oklahoma County did not release the detainers until more than two months later.

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Tony Burris is ready for his new lease on life.

Tony Burris’ warrants were finally cleared July 13, 2021, more than seven months after he was paroled.

The news finally reached Burris last week.

Now, he can move to the community sentencing portion of his incarceration, a halfway house, and begin the transition back into society.

“I just can’t wait to get out and find a job and start living my life again,” said Burris. “I know I’ll never break the law again. I’ll never give them another reason to put me back in jail again. Yes, I’m reformed.”

According to the Pardon and Parole board parole in absentia is fairly rare.

The board granted only three in 2020 and two so far in 2021.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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