COMMENTARY: ‘Pay for Success’ program could boost reform
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Published: 11-Mar-2014

OKLAHOMA CITY –  A proposal authorizing a “pay for success” revolving fund could boost prison reform prospects in Oklahoma. Passage would mark an overdue start to practical programs envisioned in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) of 2012.

Senate Bill 1278, by Senator Kim David R-Porter, would create a state Treasury fund, managed by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES). A total of $2 million would be designated the “Criminal Justice Pay for Success Revolving Fund.”

Explicit objective of the legislation, and of OMES management, is “reducing public sector costs.” OMES disbursements to “social service providers” would come only after “the delivery of predefined criminal justice outcomes.”

Initially, there’s one existing private sector program that could take on the assignment, and that’s Tulsa’s Women in Recovery (WIR).

Once a revolving fund is in place, here’s how it would work.

* WIR leaders sign a “pay-for-success” contract. A private donor or donors fund WIR.

* WIR incorporates a new wave of 100 women into its program. Every one of those would be, as Sen. David told me,  “women at imminent risk of long-term incarceration.”

* Explicitly contracted outcomes (work preparation, life skills training, drug and alcohol counseling and so forth) would be set forth in the contract. OMES would then make payment only if the conditions of the contract are met. To be clear, as described in a summary Sen. David shared with me, “If, and only if, specific outcomes are achieved,” the state “re-pays a portion of the savings [to taxpayers]. Otherwise, the state owes nothing.”

An important point that should be made here:

* All risks are borne by the private operation, not the state. Nothing gets paid until women have successfully completed the program.

Here’s the heart of the issue: Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any state in the nation, an arena where “We’re Number One!” rings pretty hollow.

Right on Crime” researchers, based at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, estimate that with just 6,000 fewer inmates, the Sooner State could shrink its annual Corrections budget by $100 million. 

Thousands are imprisoned, at an average cost of roughly $26,000 per inmate, for non-violent and/or drug-related crimes.

At WIR, the environment is entirely different than at regular facilities, which too often function as graduate schools of crime.

In an interview with Oklahoma Watchdog, Sen. David, now in her fourth year at the Legislature, said high incarceration “impacts every corner of our state. In my work at the Capitol I deal with Department of Human Services a lot, and with Corrections a lot. … The phenomenon is generational, and its impact goes on and on.”

First exposed to WIR two years ago, she described initial meetings with “the women involved in WIR, and heard their stories. I could see the difference WIR has made in their lives. We can be both ‘tough’ on crime and see true reform, changes in policy that assure we address the crime, yet redirect lives for the better.

“I want to find ways to stop criminalizing so much of the population.”

Sen. David’s legislation would take the effectiveness of the WIR program and begin to bridge into effective and ongoing public policy, with alternatives to incarceration an explicit aim of the state, as was promised in measures early in this decade.

Sen. David reflects, “I couldn't help but become involved to help these women, if possible, break the cycle. Many of them have awfully tough lives, they have faced abuse and mistreatment that might lead them into the lives that get them in trouble.“

Anticipating this week’s Senate floor debate, she said, “I feel very good about the vote. This legislation is pretty simple. It creates the fund, allows the program to exist, …  to make this methodical and effective. Keep in mind that the women who will be in this program would otherwise be headed to prison any way – so they’re being held accountable for what got them in trouble. “

WIR’s approach is one of accountability and responsibility, as I have reported,. It isn't pie-in-the-sky. It is positive and emphasizes proactive behavior, not good intentions.

As Sen. David remarked,  “it raises the hope to lower costs and improve outcomes.”

At just three pages, S.B. 1278 is a model of plain language and realism. If enacted, it would take effect on November 1, 2014 – a date that is overdue, but realistic.

Sen. David concluded our interview with this thumbnail of the practical and hopeful aspects of the program:  “With this diversion program there is absolutely no payout until WIR has done the job. I believe this is a win-win for taxpayers, and for these women who have a better chance to turn their lives around.”

The cost: $2 million to get started.

The savings, if programs like WIR become the norm for the non-violent: Hundreds of million of dollars, a smaller Corrections population, and a brighter future.

The prospect of hope: Priceless.

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