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This is Planet Money from NPR. Alexis Nicholson has this picture from when she was eight years old. So, yeah, this picture means a lot to me. I've always held onto it, even though she's a piece of paper from Chuckie Cheese. It's a picture from her eighth birthday party. There were a lot of people there. But this picture is special to Alexis because it's just her and her dad, Reggie. They're in a photo booth and their heads are up against each other smiling.
Louise, I take cheese and I don't really it's hard to talk about eBay.
Alexis is Reggie's only daughter. She's 25 years old now. And she got this picture printed on a pink sweatshirt that she's wearing.
I've always been a daddy's girl, you know what I mean? So I've I've always been close to him, even though he's always been far away.
I guess you could say her dad was arrested not too long after that birthday party when he was just 25 years old, according to transcripts. The police had shown up at Reggie's house in Oklahoma City because his home burglary alarm had gone off. Reggie wasn't home for it, but when he got there, his door was left wide open. And police were waiting outside. They had responded to the alarm. And Reggie told the cops they could go in, look around.
And while they were looking around, they found a shoe box with some drugs, money and a gun inside. And they arrested Reggie.
I do remember when I got told my grandma picked me up from school and she was just like, they got your tape in.
I knew what she was talking about. Oh, boy. I didn't want to believe it. So I asked her essay, who said who is? She said the Foleys do. The police had found six hundred and thirty five grams of crack cocaine in the shoe box, which is a decent amount. It would be like two soda cans worth of crack, a little over a pound, enough to be considered trafficking. This was in 2003.
Now, if you were caught with this exact amount of drugs today in Oklahoma, the most prison time you could get is 20 years. So a long time.
But the laws were much harsher back then, especially because Reggie had been caught with drugs twice before. And that combination to drug convictions, plus a trafficking conviction. It carried one sentence and one sentence only the rest of your life at the trial. The prosecutor told the jury that life meant they could give Reggie a million years if they wanted. Mercy is for people who don't commit one crime after another. The prosecutor said mercy, he said, is for the innocent.
The jury gave Reggie life in prison without the possibility of ever getting out. That was mandatory. But then the jury added another one thousand six hundred and fifty years after life, even though that's impossible. And even though he didn't do anything violent for Lexus, it was like she had to mourn a living person.
It's different from seeing somebody in a casket versus going to, you know, a prison in. You can't leave with the person that you want to leave with as breathing that that person has life. You not I mean, this impossibly long sentence came out at a time when Democrats and Republicans were trying to top each other on how tough they could be on crime, especially on drugs and even more especially on crack.
They said someone like Reggie should never come out. But this year, after 17 years behind bars, Reggie got the chance to do something he never imagined he'd be able to.
OK, you're ready? No. A nickel for Junior. Yes, sir. Mr. Nicholson, could you give me your D.O.C. number, please, sir?
Reggie got the chance to ask to be considered to be released from prison one day, even though he was told this would never be a possibility. But here he is before a parole board about to make his case.
You recognize these folks? Yes, sir. Oh, wow. I this my son and my daughter. OK, great.
They say this was in February. We were able to be there for this for Reggie's parole hearing. His whole family showed up.
That's my dad. So I didn't see his behavior back down. That's my dad.
We're all in a small conference room at a prison in Oklahoma City. Reggie is the only one appearing by video screen. Right.
Mr. Duelfer, would you raise your right hand, please? Yes, always work. First of all, you appear before the board today.
We'll be the through this hearing was almost impossible to imagine 20 years ago. And Reggie didn't get this opportunity because his case stood out. It didn't stand out. Reggie got before this board because lawmakers said maybe we went too far, not just with Reggie, with a lot of people. Hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Sarah Gonzalez. And I'm Mary Childs. For years, Oklahoma put more people in prison per capita than almost any other state. But that's changing.
Politicians across the U.S. and from both parties are starting to reexamine and maybe to some extent reverse how they think about long sentences and prisons. And maybe it's about morals, but it's definitely about money. Today on the show, we go to Oklahoma to watch a state change its mind and start letting out a bunch of people.
Oh, did you just get out?
Oh, thank you, Governor. Did. Yeah. Could you tell us your name?
Ainsley Mayfield. I just did. Three years on a possession charge and we made jokes.
The first thing you're gonna do. Drink a beer. Enjoy the beer.
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OK. So this February, Reggie Nicholson got the chance to try to convince the Oklahoma pardon and parole board to release him from prison 17 years into his life, plus one thousand six hundred and fifty year sentence.
Here's how we're gonna do this. Just a minute. We're gonna put the camera on your attorney, Mr. Blake. Thank you, Judge.
Reggie's family and legal team have shown up to help him make his case. The board will vote immediately after.
Will the family want to say something to us? Well, I like your style. And you say they took Reggie's daughter speaks.
Alexis, his public defender, Glenn Blake, he speaks you?
Yeah. He's clearly a young man that went into prison, you know, with zero hope. You know, I have no place in the world. And in the night, I hope the board will consider its request.
At the end. The board asks if Reggie wants to speak. He doesn't have to, but he does.
A year ago, I didn't have a chance at all, you know, and God changed the law. You know, do you guys I'd like to ask you guys seem to change mean the whole thing last less than six minutes.
Thank you, guys. We appreciate you guys. All right. Good luck to you, sir. Thank you. And that's it. Now the board votes. Reggie has to leave for Kelly Doyle out of luck.
Yes. Ellen, man. He is Robert Hill. And just two proles granted to the CNN case.
The board just said yes. They said Reggie could get out now. But it goes by so quickly that the family doesn't even realize they got good news. Glenn Blake, the public defender. He whispers to them like he's 25 years old and he's basically told you're going to die in prison, you know?
And so, I mean, I think, you know, Hope's a real thing.
And Reggie's mom, Peggy Nicholson, says she can't believe it. You know, they said back then that he wouldn't get out. And God told me that that wouldn't go happen to my son. You can only imagine he can't wait to have a good dinner. He did want a good homemade meal.
This was a huge day for Reggie Nicholson and his family. But for Reggie's public defender, Glenn Blake, all day and the next day, Glenn will be asking this parole board to shorten other people's sentences, too. He has 19 cases ahead of him all the time.
Every month there's somebody in there who gets 25, 40 life for possession with intent to now carry seven years shortening sentences like Reges.
That's called a commutation. Glenn Blake is one of the people leading the effort to correct excessive sentences in the state.
Are you from Oklahoma?
Yeah. Oh, yeah. OK. Well, my whole life hard. Well, I've lived I lived in I lived in Tulsa my whole life, with the exception of the two years I spent prisoners knew we buried the lead.
Well, do you would you do mind sharing? No. OK. Why why were you in prison for two years?
So I actually went to prison for a drug trafficking charge. Yeah. Glenn Blake was caught with enough drugs on him to be considered trafficking back when he was an employment lawyer, not a public defender. So Glenn got the same conviction as Reggie. His client, Glenn, had meth on him. He gave up his law license and he was sentenced to six years in prison. And when he walked in, it wasn't what he expected.
I'm like, man, this place is just full of a lot of normal people that made bad choices.
You know, Glenn got out in two and a half years, not six. Why do you think you didn't get life or something? Because you had no priors.
Yeah, because I'm a, you know, lawyer, privileged white guy from the south also himself tells only fiancee. I'm not gonna sit here and act like I didn't get a better deal because of my background and everything else.
And Glenn, Glenn used to be an intern at the Tulsa Public Defender's Office when he was in law school. So when he got out of prison, he called up his old boss, like, remember me?
And it was funny because I called her and I said, hey, I'm out on parole. And they want me to do tooner 200 hours of community service. And she said, we'll come down here and do it. And so I did. And then, you know, once I was over, she's like, you need to come to work here as an intern because you're going to get your law license back. That's like whatever.
I'm so happy for you.
There's a long, long list of people that gave me second chances. You know, it was years and years of hard work. But I went to the reinstatement process and in 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court reinstated my law license. So that's one of the reasons why this is my passion.
As for his client, Reggie, he got his sentence shortened before the pandemic hit the U.S. five months ago, but he's actually still in prison waiting. There's a paperwork thing and a backlog. He called us from inside. Hello.
Hi. Hey, Reggie. Reggie is shockingly patient about the whole thing.
Yeah. The. The hard part. So we I know the true test is when you walk out of prison, but I believe that as far as did my time commuted and, you know, getting getting. Of off me. I think that's the hard part. I've got that done, so I'm ready to go out there, see what the world has to offer me. And I'm still pretty young. So, I mean, I just thank God that he gave me another chance.
By the way, other prisons across the U.S. have released inmates early because of the corona virus, because if you were caught with drugs or you stole something and you die in prison because of the corona virus, that is not a fair sentence. Right? Like, death is not on the table for those things.
But the pandemic has also slowed things down for a lot of people. And that's making Reggi a little worried. Yeah, yeah.
I'm thinking that right now. That's what I'm pointing right now. They shouldn't take you for far Boston Legal, OK.
Reggie and his public defender, Glenn, got swept up in a tough on crime trend that really started happening in the U.S. in the late 1960s with the war on crime and the war on drugs in the 70s. Republicans and Democrats got us here. Between the 70s and 90s, all these laws pop up in states that make it easier to get into prison and harder to ever get out to the point that today one in 142 people in the country are behind bars.
Two point three million people.
And Oklahoma became the number one incarcerator in the country. They were number one in locking up people of color and they are still number one for women. That's whack.
How does that happen? I mean, how is it even possible? This is Chris Steele. That is the saddest thing I've ever heard.
Chris Deal was in the Oklahoma House of Representatives when Reggie was arrested and when Glenn was arrested. Chris is a Republican. And at the time, Chris says Republicans weren't really talking about how big the prison population was getting.
It's never been a traditional Republican. Core issue, like any good conservative Republican, as Chris said, he believed that you make neighbourhood safer by putting people in jail.
Political value was seen in being, quote unquote, tough on crime. And we gave very little thought to the actual costs.
Every year, lawmakers would introduce a new offence or a new crime that they thought people should go to jail for, or they would introduce new bills to increase the amount of time Oklahomans should spend in prison. And Chris says he voted for probably every one of those measures.
Then in 2008, Chris gets more responsibility over the state's budget.
The thing that jumped off the page for me at that moment in time is that spending for corrections had become Oklahoma's second fastest growing expenditure after what Medicaid and at first, Chris like.
Okay, that is fine if it's keeping us safer. But when he starts looking at crime stats, he realizes, oh, it's not it's not doing that.
It would be one thing if mass incarceration actually worked in in reducing crime or improving public safety. It does not. In fact, not only does Oklahoma have higher incarceration rates.
Our crime rate is not decreasing nearly as rapidly as in other states. And and so it just doesn't make any sense for Chris.
The whole system goes against a core conservative principle.
I would even go as far as to say that it's impossible to identify oneself as a fiscal conservative and continue to be okay with wasting money on an inefficient system that is not producing the results of what it's intended to produce.
And for Chris, that was it.
As a lifelong Oklahoman, I would tell you that that our faith is part of our culture and we boast about how important it is to us when we run for office. And yet we have created a system that is almost entirely based on retribution and punishment.
Chris was no longer going to be a part of it. He decides to dedicate himself to prison reform. He says he has a lot to do to make amends for some of his past decisions. Chris also happens to be a Baptist minister.
And so I would like to challenge my faith friends and ask the question, where are the elements of grace and mercy and forgiveness and restoration and redemption and all of those things that I think make faith attractive?
Chris Steel starts trying to find other Republicans like him, and he finds another conservative in Texas who was thinking along the same lines. Oh, good.
I'm Mark Levin, vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. And right on crime. Right on crime.
Well, it's just the kind of double meaning that both were correct in our solutions for crime, but that we're also a conservative meaning can confirm that we're nonpartisan.
But from a conservative Free-Market perspective. OK.
There was a time when prisons were much cheaper to run. It was a long time ago. There were less rules and requirements and many prisons were basically slavery. Under another guise, prisoners were forced to work for free, often even literally picking cotton.
But that kind of was the plantation system that evolved out of slavery and everything. And of course, it was it was awful. But but they became non self-sustaining and started costing billions of dollars.
When you put so many people behind bars, the costs add up. And this is the bard of prison reform that Mark is looking at today. According to the prison policy initiative, the whole incarceration punishment system costs the government and the public at least one hundred and eighty two billion dollars a year. That includes prisons and jails and the parole system and food and guards everything.
And a lot of this money is being spent on people whose offenses are pretty silly. Mark says, like a lot of people are in prison right now, not because they committed a crime, but because they broke some weird parole rule after they got out of prison, whether it's missing a meeting, drinking alcohol, leaving the county without permission.
These are all things that you or I could do.
Of course, marijuana and marks like you can go back to prison for years and years because you drove out of the county for a bit or drink a beer.
That feels very big government and like a waste and making people sit in prison for years and years or forever. Doesn't sound super fiscally responsible either. He's thinking we should really cap. Years. 40 years. That's a lot of punishment that you've served in prison. And we've accomplished the punishment purpose of sentencing. So let's take a look at. Have you been rehabilitated or are you just so geriatric at this point that you can't pose a threat to anyone? And let's let's just try to act in the interest of the taxpayers, if not in the interest of mercy.
Yeah. Old prisoners, Marcus thinking is keeping 90 year olds and ninety five year olds in prison really a great victory for public safety?
Mark starts approaching all the big wigs in the Republican Party with his ideas. Newt Gingrich. Grover Norquist. Major conservative donors and PACs.
I think the key was to say you weren't necessarily wrong. You know, 30 years ago. But we we did that stuff. In other words, we the incarceration rates went up six times from the early 70s to the early 2000s. We went a bit too far. But, you know, we needed to do some of that, but we went overboard.
And Mark does get a lot of pushback. Republicans are like, why is a conservative organization pushing for these things? But eventually, many Republicans start listening, in part because the call was coming from inside the House.
Right, exactly. Yep. There's there's no doubt about that. And we just want as a Democrats, we're having a parallel conversation about prison reform. But Mark says for them, it was more about how prisons disproportionately impact black people and people of color. So everyone is coming at this from a different place, but they arrive at the same destination.
And then the 2008 financial crisis hit. And that states hemorrhage money. It suddenly becomes a lot easier to look at prison budgets as a place to cut costs. Blue states and red states, they all start changing their laws, saying those weird parole violations, they're not going to send you back to prison as easily. And we're going to demote a bunch of crimes. You won't even set foot in jail at all for some of them.
Which brings us back to Oklahoma. A group called Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform was saying the real problem in Oklahoma is just how long the sentences are. That's why there's so many people in jail and that's why it's so expensive. And they say if politicians aren't going to change those laws, we will remember Chris Diehl, the minister lawmaker. He has left office and he is part of this group now. They get an initiative on the ballot to let the people vote and it passes.
Simple drug possession becomes a misdemeanor in Oklahoma, no longer a felony, which means you'll get way less time. And this group thinks, great, we did it. Except what if we could actually get some people out of prison to the ones in. Under the old laws, what if we could get their sentences shortened? They come up with a list of about a thousand people and they make a plan to get them out of prison earlier in the summer of 2018.
They knock on the door of the Tulsa Public Defender's Office where Glenn Blake has just gotten his law license back. And Glenn Blake is like, sign me up.
This is just like like when I say this is my dream job, I mean I literally mean it's my dream job, Glenn.
And some law students start looking for the most compelling cases in that list.
And Reggie's case, you know, Glenn's client with the one thousand six hundred and fifty years, he doesn't even make the first cut of the most compelling cases, Glenn.
And the law students just start showing up at prisons.
It was kind of funny because, you know, we show up and you've got, you know, 25 people who are incarcerated sitting around looking at us like, why are you here? And we'd be like, I, you know, basically, hey, we're here to help you try to get out of prison. And people are just floored.
They find 50 people that they think the parole board can't say no to. And the board approves 30. The governor, Mary Fallin, a Republican, was on her way out of office and she signed all of the releases.
It was a surreal but amazing experience. I mean, it was incredible. And I thought, wow, that was great, you know? But then we kind of thought, well, that she was fine. Maybe it's over.
But it was unexpectedly popular. The legislature expanded on it. And when the next governor took office, also a Republican, Kevin said he ordered a mass release last November. On a Monday, 462 people walked out of prison early. The largest single day commutation in the country's history. And it took Oklahoma from the number one incarcerator to the number two incarcerator and most recently, the number three.
It saved them 12 million dollars, according to the state. But states like New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, Alaska, they're actually doing much, much better at significantly reducing their prison populations like they've cut them by 30 percent in order for Oklahoma to be in line with the national average. They would have to release twelve thousand inmates. Oklahoma only released about a thousand.
And regardless of how you feel about letting people out early, being there when people walk out years before they ever thought they would. Kind of incredible. That's after the break. Planet Money has a tick tock. And it's full of edgy tainment. Jeremy Gwynfor Lake for like their parents who don't understand tick tock past economics at Planet Money, Saga Economics doesn't. We're going to talk about it.
What does it mean to be the only person who looks like you at your place of work?
I was the first Latina in the newsroom at NPR ever to step foot who wasn't cleaning it.
We discussed the reckoning overrates taking place in newsrooms across the country. Listen and subscribe now to its benefit from NPR. The day we got to the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center in Vernita, Oklahoma, about 100 people were scheduled to be released across the state.
Oh, God. I came all the way from Colorado for this. Desmond, Nicole Berry is here to pick up her brother. Brother. That's my every high ask. My whole world, my whole heart.
And today, Desmond's been sending her brother money for five years.
So I got two jobs. One job was just, you know, for me, because I love to go out to eat. And then when he got in trouble, I was just like, OK. Make sure he calls every day. He has commissary every week. We don't go to bed without saying good night.
Rather got 20 years for having like 13 blunts worth of weed. But the governor shortened his sentence to five years, which he's already done. So he can walk out now.
And he has some strong opinions about just how he wanted to walk out.
Why did you what do you have here for him? He's got some live on Hanser. He wanted an all black T-shirt and a jacket.
So he's like, I want to walk down all the flags. You don't even know this is the biggest blessing.
OK, I want to play you.
He knows we're going to talk to him afterwards. There's been walks into the prison. We were told we couldn't go in, but we found a window. I'm looking at them through a window. They're kind of far away, but I can see them. We're going to show.
It's like sticking your little faces in. She's in there jumping. I've him hugging him. And the guards are telling your man, man. No jail. Don't jump out.
He's out. You got all changed in his outfit. I can see him. He looks so happy. He's grabbing some stuff. He's getting his things together. They're standing up in the front waiting.
Oh, boy. Good.
Very nice to meet you. You think I take some guard comes out and is like you guys are not actually going to be able to stand here and talk and everyone is like, yeah, OK, no problem.
Get out of here. We're out of here.
This is Jacqui's Nicole Berry. He goes by quiz mail. It feels good to be out.
It's been almost four and a half years yet, so it feels good to just be released thoroughly.
We get in their car. He means his baby niece, who's there in diapers with the grandpa. There are hugs and kisses. Chocolates asks about his grandma. She'll be his first stop. And then, like any self respecting person. Quas asks for his sister's phone.
Yeah, I just asked her for her father's clock and said, Baby, don't you go put w w w at the beginning.
You don't have if put w w w die in front is e mail for good.
I don't know how to work this.
He's like, let me see if I remember my password. It may not be.
Oh is it. What are you doing right now.
Posting on Facebook that I'm free.
And then everyone is like no one's on Facebook anymore. Quas do you know about Instagram? Instagram is where it's at. That's what the everybody was telling me. On our Instagram, we have pictures and videos of cois getting out. We are at Planet Money. We are also still on Facebook and Twitter. But let's be real art. Tick tock is really where it's at. You can also e-mail us. Planet Money at NPR dot org. Thank you to Stephen Bigley at the Pardon and Parole Board and Robert Chase, a prison historian for all their help.
Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz Ghazi and Darian Woods. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer and Bryant Scott edits the show. I'm Mary Child. And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.