Sooner and Later: Governor Fallin slow-played prison reforms, so now Obama takes the lead
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Published: 16-Jul-2015

OKLAHOMA CITY – The conservative Republicans who now lead Oklahoma for a time had the initiative – albeit with notable bipartisan help – in long overdue prison reforms.

But they fumbled the ball for a few years, not implementing the visionary “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” (JRI) of 2012. After having a clear plan to address the Sooner State's unenviable position as perpetually in the top five of incarceration of men (and usually at number one in incarceration of women), 

Governor Mary Fallin's staff dropped the ball on the policy opportunity of a lifetime – or, at least, of the Fallin era.

Conservatives “slow-played” prison reform in Oklahoma. Consequently, our state's prison overcrowding and dysfunction problems are worse than ever.

To be fair, credit Gov. Fallin for just recently (early this summer) trying to address the intractable “85 percent” rule for convicted felons. Unwillingness to address the mandate that 85 percent of a term pass before an inmate can start gaining credits for good behavior has, effectively, meant that even the best-behaved convicts serve 93 percent or more of a term.

Giving Republicans credit for some recent half-steps, a lot of time has been lost in implementation of programs modeled on “best practices” from across the nation (including those of Fallin's friend, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry) – pragmatic and moral steps to reduce the scourge of over-incarceration bleeding resources away from policies that could salvage human lives while ultimately allowing spending discipline and tax relief.

Reviews of emails from within the Fallin administration made it clear that fear of being tagged “soft-on-crime” led her astray, even as many celebrated Fallin’s signature on what was considered “game-changing” legislation when it passed in 2012.

Those emails turned out to be full of dismissive references to advocates of prison reform.

I remember thinking, as I first read the email trove: I know the advocates of prison reform. Many of them are friends of mine. And no one in the Fallin administration has been in a position to challenge the conservative credentials of those on the Right who have led this cause for three decades.

Freedom of information requests from the state’s two largest newspapers and the Associated Press – and from Tulsa-based Oklahoma Watch – eventually set the table with the absence of vision among some members of Fallin's staff.

From those missives, we learned that one key Fallin adviser after passage of JRI deemed prison reform “liberal” as she brokered meetings in which the intention was to freeze out then-Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, in the closing months of his time in the Legislature.

The governor’s lawyer, Steve Mullins, insisted hefty campaign contributions from private prison operators had no impact on the Fallin administration’s decision to stall implementation of the JRI), which had been intended (and which Fallin herself had touted) as a pivot point in the state criminal justice system.

Even now, I still want to take Mullins at his word. I understand the role of private prisons. Still, corrections and all of law enforcement are core government functions.

After reading the Fallin staff emails on JRI when they became available after lengthy delay, Oklahoma City University Prof. Andy Spiropoulos, who also serves as the Friedman Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, wrote, “Ironically, the governor’s administration suffers from the same problem as President Barack Obama. She has assembled a staff of loyalists who are skilled in political marketing, but lack interest in policy entrepreneurship. They care more about political positioning than crafting and implementing creative policies.”

In a January 2014 commentary, Prof. Spiropoulos noted the Fallin team’s distaste to agree with Obama on anything, and continued, “Crude political calculation, I admit, would lead you to want to separate yourself from the president at every turn. A savvy policymaker, on the other hand, would see the ideological agreement on these issues as an opportunity, not a problem.”

The documents from within Fallins administration made it abundantly clear that some of her staff considered justice reinvestment – redirecting limited resources from pricey imprisonment of non-violent offenders toward proven alternatives – a liberal idea.

That was shocking news to many conservatives, including former Attorney General Ed Meese, New Right fundraising guru Richard Viguerie, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a generation of respected policy analysts.

Reformers include Republicans in the Texas “Right on Crime” movement, along with groups like the Council of State Governments.

Another note from the past: In 2011, state Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, described unfunded liabilities in state government pensions as an issue “that could implode us.”

He was right. First steps toward pension reform, including an end to more-or-less-automatic cost of living adjustments for retirees), captured about one-third of Oklahoma's unfunded pension liability.

The same progress that has indisputably been made on state pension issues in Oklahoma could have marked the past three years in our state.

To be clear about this, prison spending rests alongside public pension debts and health care spending as areas of government spending nearly out of control. Yet there are practical, methodical steps that could avoid continued massive cost run-ups, buying time for a new era of restraints on spending and wiser policies.

The essential shift needed is to stop locking people up for years for nonviolent offenses, when shorter sentences combined with sensible monitoring could save millions, and eventually hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is not complicated in theory, but certainly it is challenging in implementation. Still, it's not like there are no examples to draw upon. Focusing solely on prison expenditures, a range of policies proved effective in Texas and could work in Oklahoma.

These include, at the back end, post-release supervision of women and men coming out of prisons, and, at the front end of the “intake” process, creation of more “mental health beds” for those who have committed an offense but are not inherently criminal. (Some progress has been made in the latter area.)

What Oklahoma lacked, even after consensus for reform existed, were key “players” empowered to pay attention to implementation across agency lines, to establish practical and effective relationships with private sector actors (not only the private firms, but also groups modeled after ReMerge and Women in Recovery), offering alternatives to prison time for the nonviolent

Summing up, Oklahoma, with Mary Fallin at the helm, could have led the way for timely implementation of prisons and the justice system over the past three years.

Instead, the state remains mired in failed policies that hurt not only the public in general – higher-than-necessary costs to protect the public -- but also those in the system who might yet be salvaged.

So, here we are in the summer of 2015. A liberal Democratic president has traveled to El Reno (a federal facility, to be sure) to influence a nationwide discussion that the Fallin administration could have and should have directed with incremental steps toward reform over the past three years.

More power to Barack Obama for raising the issue to nationwide consciousness. Give him credit for this one, at least.

Still, in terms of lost opportunities, it's enough to make a conservative weep.

NOTE: This essay is adapted and updated from a commentary posted in January 2014.
Among Pat McGuigan's professional experience is his work as co-editor of “Crime in Punishment in Modern America” (1986).

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