How long is a life sentence in Oklahoma?

Quick Answer

A life sentence in Oklahoma typically means the convicted person will spend the rest of their natural life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, Oklahoma does allow for the possibility of parole after serving at least 15 years of a life sentence. So while a life sentence may technically mean life in prison, the possibility of parole after 15 years means a life sentence could potentially end up being much shorter.

What is a life sentence in Oklahoma?

In Oklahoma, a life sentence is the most severe punishment available for criminal convictions and means the convicted person must remain imprisoned until death. Life sentences in Oklahoma do not carry with them the possibility of a definite term of years, but instead leave it up to the state to determine when (or if) the prisoner will be released.

Some key facts about life sentences in Oklahoma:

  • A life sentence means imprisonment for the remainder of the prisoner’s natural life.
  • Unlike some other states, life sentences in Oklahoma do not carry a minimum number of years that must be served before parole eligibility.
  • Oklahoma has two types of life sentences – life with the possibility of parole, and life without parole.
  • The majority of Oklahoma life sentences include the possibility of parole after 15 years in prison.
  • Prisoners serving life without parole will never be released from prison.

So while all life sentences in Oklahoma technically mean the prisoner must remain incarcerated for life, most life sentences include parole eligibility after 15 years served.

Is life without parole an option in Oklahoma?

Yes, Oklahoma state law does allow courts to impose life without the possibility of parole as a sentence in certain cases. Life without parole sentences completely preclude the possibility that the prisoner will ever be released, no matter their behavior or rehabilitation efforts in prison.

Life without parole is an option for Oklahoma courts in the following situations:

  • When a defendant is convicted of first degree murder.
  • When a defendant is convicted of certain sex offenses against children under the age of 14.
  • In cases of repeat offenses for certain violent felonies like rape, arson, and kidnapping.

So while the vast majority of life sentences in Oklahoma do come with the possibility of parole after 15 years, courts can opt to impose life without parole in particularly serious cases like child sex offenses and certain types of first degree murder. The increase in life without parole sentences for serious and repeat offenses is part of a nationwide tough-on-crime trend aimed at improving public safety and ensuring violent criminals remain off the streets.

What does parole eligibility after 15 years mean?

Most life sentences in Oklahoma include the possibility of parole after the prisoner has served a minimum of 15 years. However, parole eligibility does not guarantee that parole will be granted after 15 years.

Some key facts about parole eligibility in Oklahoma:

  • The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has sole discretion in granting or denying parole.
  • Prisoners must apply for parole – it is not automatically granted once the 15 year minimum has been served.
  • The Board considers factors like the severity of the crime, behavior in prison, risk to public safety and the prisoner’s parole plan.
  • Parole for lifers is not as commonly granted after just 15 years as it once was.
  • Many prisoners serving parole-eligible life sentences are denied release multiple times by the Board.

So while there is the possibility of parole after 15 years of a life sentence, there is no guarantee. The Parole Board is increasingly conservative about releasing lifers after minimum time served. Still, parole eligibility provides many lifers an incentive for good behavior and rehabilitation efforts while incarcerated.

How often is parole granted to lifers after 15 years?

The percentage of parole-eligible Oklahoma lifers released after serving just their 15 year minimum sentence has dropped significantly in recent decades:

  • In 1980, over 80% of eligible lifers were paroled after 15 years.
  • By 2000, that rate had dropped to around 33% of eligible lifers being granted parole.
  • In 2010, only around 7% of parole-eligible lifers were granted release after 15 years.
  • Today, it is estimated that less than 5% of lifers are granted parole at their first eligibility date.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has grown increasingly hesitant to grant parole at the earliest opportunity. Most lifers are denied parole multiple times before being granted release, often serving years past their minimum 15 before parole is approved.

Factors like the violent or sexual nature of the crime, prison disciplinary issues, and lack of rehabilitation efforts contribute to the denials. The Board is focused primarily on minimizing risk to public safety when considering parole for lifers.

What is the average time served by Oklahoma lifers?

While parole eligibility exists after 15 years, the recent tendencies of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board means the actual time served by many lifers is much longer.

A 2005 study by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections looked at average time served by parole-eligible lifers:

  • Lifers convicted of murder served an average of 20.4 years before parole release.
  • The average for manslaughter lifers was 15.8 years served.
  • Lifers convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon served 16.7 years on average.
  • The overall average time served for parole-eligible lifers was around 17.8 years.

More recent estimates indicate the current averages may now be between 2-6 years higher than the 2005 figures. So while 15 years is the minimum required by law, the typical parole-eligible lifer in Oklahoma serves nearly 18-22 years behind bars before release.

Can an Oklahoma lifer get their sentence commuted or suspended?

Yes, there are a couple processes by which an Oklahoma lifer’s sentence can still be altered even after it has been imposed:

  • Commutation – The governor has the power to commute (lessen) a prisoner’s sentence, changing a life term to allow for parole eligibility or an earlier parole date.
  • Suspended sentence – This allows for a prisoner’s originally imposed sentence to be suspended, releasing the inmate from prison. It also requires action by the governor.

However, sentence commutations and suspensions are very rare in Oklahoma. The governor receives hundreds of applications but on average only approves a handful each year, almost always for specific non-violent cases.

So while legally possible, getting a life sentence commuted or suspended by the governor is extremely unlikely except in very exceptional circumstances. For the vast majority of lifers, their sentences will remain unchanged from what the court originally imposed.

What about geriatric parole for elderly lifers?

Oklahoma does have a geriatric parole policy to allow for parole consideration for elderly inmates, including some lifers:

  • Applies to inmates age 60 and older who have served at least 10 years.
  • Excludes inmates convicted of certain violent crimes like murder, manslaughter and sex offenses.
  • The Pardon and Parole Board has sole discretion and may consider factors like health status.
  • Even eligible elderly inmates may be denied parole in the interest of public safety.

So while geriatric parole exists as an option, the exclusions for violent offenders mean it rarely applies to most lifers. And if the Board believes an elderly lifer still poses too great a public safety risk, they can deny parole.

Overall, geriatric parole provides very limited opportunities for lifers – it was never intended to be a backdoor to freedom for aging murderers and rapists no longer considered threats.

Can lifers get parole if they are terminally ill?

Oklahoma does provide the possibility of medically paroling terminally ill and severely incapacitated inmates, including some lifers, under certain conditions:

  • Prisoner must be diagnosed with a terminal medical condition likely to result in death within 12 months.
  • Prisoners rendered quadriplegic, paraplegic or otherwise severely physically incapacitated may also qualify.
  • Murderers and inmates convicted of forcible sex crimes are excluded from eligibility.
  • The Parole Board reviews relevant medical evidence and has sole discretion on granting or denying parole.

So while Oklahoma law does allow for the possibility of paroling certain incapacitated or dying inmates to receive outside care, the exclusions mean this policy rarely applies to violent lifers either.

The reality is only a very small percentage of lifers manage to get paroled under the geriatric and medical provisions, as public safety is the priority in evaluating such cases.

Can juvenile lifers get different parole considerations?

In recent years there have been some changes in how juvenile offenders sentenced to life terms are treated regarding parole:

  • In 2021, Oklahoma banned life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
  • Now juveniles sentenced to life are parole eligible within the first 15 years.
  • The Pardon and Parole Board must give “meaningful consideration” to juvenile factors like brain development and maturity.
  • But the Board still has full discretion and can deny parole to juveniles when appropriate.

So juveniles sentenced to life in Oklahoma do now at least have the possibility of parole during the initial 15 years of incarceration. However, the Board is very deliberate in evaluating juvenile lifers for parole, given the seriousness of the crimes committed at a young age.

Many juvenile lifers still end up serving years past their earliest parole date despite recent legal changes aimed at allowing rehabilitation and maturation to factor into parole decisions. Public safety remains the priority consideration.


While a life sentence in Oklahoma technically means imprisonment for the remainder of an inmate’s life, most lifers are still eligible for parole consideration after serving a minimum of 15 years. However, parole for lifers is rarely granted immediately at the 15 year mark – most serve at least 18-22 years before release. Recent parole trends for lifers focus heavily on minimizing risks to public safety, meaning time served often substantially exceeds the 15 year minimum required by law. For the most serious crimes like murder and child sex offenses, true life without parole may be imposed to permanently remove the most dangerous criminals from society. But for most lifers, while parole eligibility exists after 15 years, there is no guarantee of release after minimum time served.

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