Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY -- State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, is plugging away for prison reform, on multiple levels. He has carefully criticized the “lock-‘em-up and throw away the key” philosophy that seemingly has dominated in the Republican House caucus.
Through early this week, Cleveland says, he has visited all of the state prisons except two “out in western Oklahoma, and I’ll get to them.”
In his most recent visits, to the Harp facility in Lexington, Cleveland focused on food preparation and costs. He noted that prison officials and two entrepreneurial inmates had developed a program that is saving money and reducing food waste, by edging the antiquated tracking system into the information age.
Asked by host Scott Mitchell what the food at the facility is like, Rep.Cleveland quipped, “It’s not bad if you like corn bread and beans.”
Cleveland made his comments Monday during the “Mitchell and McGuigan” morning segment on KOKC Radio, 1560 AM and 103.1 FM.
When a set of proposals known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) was enacted early in this decade, hopes soared that Oklahoma might follow the lead of other states, including Georgia and Texas. In those states, a combination of “smart-on-crime” rehabilitation and drug counseling programs, combined with more thorough supervision of those who have left prison, has flattened corrections spending.
However, momentum for reform stalled and then dissipated almost entirely during a conflict between Gov. Mary Fallin’s legal staff and JRI advocates, including former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.
This year, some forward movement began, with Fallin’s support. She signed into law Senate Bill 1278, which creates a revolving fund from which qualified private sector programs can be compensated after non-violent female offenders have completed every aspect of a diversion program intended to decrease chances for recidivism and increase chances for productive lives as taxpayers and citizens.
The measure is intended both to save money (thousands of dollars less than incarceration per participant) and to reduce Oklahoma’s unenviable ranking as No. 1 in female incarceration.
During the 2014 legislative session, House Speaker Jeff Hickman and Public Safety Committee Chairman Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, put Cleveland in charge of, in the words of a House press release at the time, “finding solutions to the current crisis facing state corrections.”
Rep. Cleveland’s legislative district includes the Joseph Harp Correction Center and the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center.
In comments this spring, he reflected, “The current conditions of our correction institutions do not provide an environment of rehabilitation and are unsafe for both inmates and corrections workers. This situation puts lives in danger, and it is time the legislature develop a plan to deal with this crisis.”
He contends the current conditions of overcrowding and lack of any programs to provide practical skills to inmates while they are “inside” creates dangerous circumstances for corrections workers.
One of his measures that did not make it to enactment this year is House Bill 2732, the Correctional Officer Safety Act of 2014. The bill addresses a central issue of safety (for prison guards and others) and equity in treatment of offenders. Under Oklahoma law, those incarcerated in theory become eligible for release (contingent on good behavior) after serving 85 percent of their sentence. However, the “85 percent” rule has become a dead letter in the law, with even well-behaved inmates serving 90 percent of more of their time before the release process even begins.
Cleveland’s proposal would simply say that 85 percent means 85 percent. It would allow prisoners incarcerated for 85 percent offenses “to begin accruing credits immediately upon beginning their sentence, though that credit could not have been applied until the inmate has served at least 85 percent of their sentence.”
With the support of Gov. Mary Fallin, the Department of Corrections (DOC) leadership requested the measure. Corrections professions, the Pardon and Parole Board and other reform advocates backed the measure. However, members of the District Attorneys’ Council, after initial support, quietly worked against the measure, and it ultimately fell short.
Cleveland intends to make another push for the measure. His Senate sponsor was Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, and Democratic state Reps. Jeanne McDaniel, Tulsa, Mike Sheton, Oklahoma City, Anastasia Pittman, Oklahoma City, and Emily Virgin, Norman.