Coronavirus Pandemic Sparks Movement To Rethink Incarceration

Jul 24, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 7:09 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thousands of people in the last few months have been released early from jails and prisons because of the coronavirus. But it's also part of a much bigger movement rethinking incarceration. Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast takes us to Oklahoma.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Alexis Nicholson is 25. She's always been close to her dad.

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ALEXIS NICHOLSON: I've always been a daddy's girl. You know what I mean? So I've always been close to him even though he's always been far away, I guess you could say.

GONZALEZ: Her dad was arrested when she was 8 years old. According to transcripts, police went into her dad's house after his home burglary alarm had gone off. And inside the house, police found some money in a shoe box along with a gun and 635 grams of crack cocaine, which is a little over a pound - enough to be considered trafficking.

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A NICHOLSON: I do remember when I got told. My grandma picked me up from school. And she was just, like, they got your dad (crying). So I asked her - I said, who - I said, who has him? She said, the police do.

GONZALEZ: Her dad had been caught with drugs twice before. And in Oklahoma, two drug convictions plus a trafficking conviction carried one sentence only - the rest of your life. The jury gave her dad life in prison, which was mandatory, plus another 1,650 years after.

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UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: OK, you're Reginald A. Nicholson Jr.?

REGGIE NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GONZALEZ: But this year, after 17 years behind bars, Reggie Nicholson got the chance to ask if he could one day be released from prison, even though he was told that would never be possible. Here he is about to ask.

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UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: You recognize these folks?

R NICHOLSON: Yes, sir. That's my mom. That's my son. That's my daughter. That's my dad, also.

GONZALEZ: This was in February. It's Reggie Nicholson's parole hearing.

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R NICHOLSON: A year ago, I didn't have a chance at parole.

GONZALEZ: The whole thing lasts less than six minutes.

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UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: All right. Good luck to you, sir.

GLEN BLAKE: Thank you.

GONZALEZ: And that's it. Now the board votes.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Kelly Doyle.

KELLY DOYLE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Adam Luck.

ADAM LUCK: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Allen McCall.

ALLEN MCCALL: Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Robert Gilliland.

ROBERT GILLILAND: Yes. It's a yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Parole is granted to the CS case.

GONZALEZ: The board just said he can get out now 17 years into his life-plus-1,650-year sentence. And Reggie Nicholson did not get before this board because his case stood out. It didn't stand out. He got here because lawmakers said maybe we went too far. In 2018, Oklahoma became the No. 1 incarcerator in the country. They're still No. 1 for women.

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KRIS STEELE: That's whack.

GONZALEZ: Kris Steele was in the Oklahoma House of Representatives when Reggie Nicholson was sentenced.

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STEELE: That is the saddest thing I've ever heard.

GONZALEZ: He's Republican. And every year, Steele says he and his fellow Republicans voted to put more people in prison for more offenses and for longer periods of time.

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STEELE: And we gave very little thought to the actual cost.

GONZALEZ: In 2008, corrections had become Oklahoma's fastest growing expenditure after Medicaid. And at first, Kris Steele was like, that's totally fine if it's making us safer - but it wasn't. And for him, this went against a core conservative principle.

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STEELE: I would even go as far as to say that it's impossible to identify oneself as a fiscal conservative and continue to be OK with wasting money on an inefficient system.

GONZALEZ: Kris Steele is now with a group called Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. They got voters to reduce some of the penalties for drug possession. And other states have been doing similar things, too. New Jersey, Alaska, Alabama - they've cut their prison populations by about 35% according to the Sentencing Project. But this group also helped get the governor to shore in sentences, like Reggie Nicholson's. His life-plus-1,650-year sentence was commuted to 20 years. That's why he got the parole hearing. He is still in prison, though. There's a backlog. But about a thousand others have already been released early.

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JACQUEZ NICKELBERRY: Yeah, we're out of here. We're out of here (laughter).

GONZALEZ: Like Jacquez Nickelberry (ph).

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NICKELBERRY: Man, it feels good to be out (laughter).

GONZALEZ: He got 20 years for marijuana possession. But the governor shortened his sentence to five years, which he's already done.

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GONZALEZ: What are you doing right now?

NICKELBERRY: Posting on Facebook that I'm free (laughter). Don't you got to put www at the beginning? You don't? Hey, I forgot. I don't know how to work this.

GONZALEZ: Shortening prison sentences has saved the state about $12 million so far, but it only took Oklahoma from the No. 1 incarcerator to the No. 3.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.