COMMENTARY: Oklahoma Prison Reform or bovine scatology? Prove it!
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Published: 22-Mar-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first signs of trouble for prison reform came last fall, when state officials could not answer questions about implementation of the “justice reinvestment initiative” (JRI) passed in spring 2012.

JRI? Shorthand for a shifting from incarceration of the non-violent, assuring post-release supervision of parolees, and  “reinvestment” of resources for treatment and revocation facilities, among other things. 

Until March 14, there was a JRI Working Group trying to shepherd the new policy into reality. Its two most prominent members resigned at the end of that meeting, but JRI’s troubles did not originate that day. 

Last year, key players were instructed to stay away from a meeting of the JRI Working Group. Rebecca Frazier, one of Gov. Mary Fallin’s lawyers, was unable to answer questions about implementation. Maybe advocates should have panicked, but they took at face value her protestations things were slow moving, but on track. 

Then, in February, Gov. Fallin rebuffed a grant she had requested to finance prison reform implementation. The concern here was not the refusal of a federal grant, per se, but the absence of any evidence that the law, which went into effect Nov. 1, was being implemented. 

JRI’s heart monitor flat line came as Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office wanted to talk nothing other than violent crime. His agency was and is tasked with implementing local grants program to get law enforcement in tune with wise use of crime-fighting resources, one part of a shift toward alternatives to prison for at least some crimes. 

Again, the idea is to fashion data-proven policy alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes. That’s not happening.

The Legislature is advancing a bill formally to shift oversight of JRI from that inter-agency working group toward a Council consisting of political appointees rather than law enforcement professionals.
 
Call it my Damascus moment. Figuratively, scales fell from my eyes after I submitted an open records request to the director of Corrections. I asked for all emails, letters and other communications touching on JRI, to or from legislators -- including handwritten notes. 

I wanted everything relating to JRI, but a corrections employee told me over the phone, “that could be a lot of stuff.” So, I limited it to items since November 1.


The answer? “Director (Justin) Jones has asked me to let you know that a search of e-mails and printed correspondence did not find any documents to or from legislators pertaining to your request.”

This is the most important shift in Corrections policy in our young state’s history. Not even one communication since the program went into effect? 

We’re talking about the Legislature, so maybe it’s true. But the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. once rebutted a question with the words “bovine scatology.”

Maybe the problem facing Oklahoma’s prison reform program is that its original author is no longer a politician. Perhaps, for present elected officials involved, the prison reforms passed in 2012 (and in a handful of earlier bills) are defective for reasons of “N.I.H.” 

I encountered that acronym in Washington, D.C., while working for Paul Weyrich, a “New Right” activist and thinker who had friendships across the political spectrum.

One time we discussed an odd change in direction on an important issue within the Republican ranks of Congress. It did not make sense, I said. He replied immediately, “Of course it makes sense. It’s NIH.”

National Institutes of Health?,” I asked. 

No. ‘Not Invented Here.’ Kill what’s sensible because the existing policy came from the guys and gals who ran things before you. The current policy isn’t theirs. This is about power, to make it clear who is in charge, so the settled policy must be changed,” Weyrich explained.

Perhaps the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is on life support, not because it is a policy that has been tried and failed, but because it was envisioned and designed by former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, and not by the governor, the current speaker, the attorney general and others now in charge.

Despite evidence that the Fallin administration wants to kill JRI, I could be wrong. Still, I witnessed what was likely the final meeting of the JRI Working Group, where the governor’s main lawyer, Steve Mullins, methodically insulted the intelligence of a room full of people.
 
If I am wrong: Prove it. 

Implement JRI in good faith, as envisioned in existing law, and as proven effective in Texas and a half-dozen other states. Call it “Smart on Crime” or “Right on Crime” if you prefer, but implement the law enacted last year.

Otherwise, repeal the legislation and revert honestly to the “tough-on-crime” approach and its unsustainable costs for all of us -- and loss of hope for those who, having broken the law, could be rescued, restored and renewed with programs that have worked elsewhere. 

NIH. That’s pronounced “neh.” Prove me wrong. 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.


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