OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A hot button bill is now advancing through the Oklahoma legislature, spurring a heated and contentious debate. Lawmakers backing up the new bill call it a much-needed reform, while opponents call it “egregious” and retaliation for Julius Jones’ recent commutation.
“This is about the Pardon and Parole Board no longer being able to fulfill their duties,” said Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa.
“I think what they’re doing here is illustrating the need for this bill,” said Rep. John Pfieffer, the author of HB 3903.
The bill barely passed through the House Judiciary – Criminal Committee on Wednesday in a 6 to 5 vote. If HB 3903 becomes law, inmates would not be allowed to ask the board for a lesser sentence than the life without parole or death-sentence a judge originally handed down to them.
“We’re one of the leading states where we have found ourselves on the wrong end of some convictions and if it had not been for the process that they’re trying to do away with this particular legislation, we would have killed, murdered state-oriented individuals who were innocent,” said Sen. George Young, D-OKC.
Pfieffer said the legislation would make sure the courts have their job while the state’s Pardon and Parole board has theirs. It would also help lessen trauma on the families of murder victims.
“I’ve talked to several victims groups today that have been very supportive, thanking me for running this bill and saying they’re very, very happy that we’re finally moving forward with this process,” said Pfieffer.
Brian Howell, the brother of Paul Howell, who Julius Jones was convicted of killing in 1999 said, “Unless you are a family member of a murder victim or have worked closely with victims’ families, I don’t think you can fully understand what a difficult, emotional and gut-wrenching experience it is to revisit those memories years or even decades after the crime.”
However, opponents of the bill are calling this backlash for Jones’ life being spared by the Gov. Kevin Stitt back in November.
“It is retaliation against a pardon and parole board who voted not once, but twice, to recommend life with the possibility of parole to our governor,” said Atoinette Jones, Julius’ sister.
“This is not an obvious retaliation,” said Pfieffer.
Democrats with the Legislative Black Caucus also pointed to “mischaratization” of what the Pardon and Parole Board actually does, which is make recommendations. The final decision is up to the governor.
“They’re appointed by the governor. And when you disagree with the governor, guess what? More than likely, you’re removed,” said Rep. Jason Lowe, D-OKC.
“The Pardon and Parole Board is there to determine whether a sentence or clemency is needed, not whether somebody is guilty or innocent,” said Pfieffer.
The bill is now on it’s way to the full House of Representatives, then it will go over to the Senate’s side.