COMMENTARY: Sooner and Later: For prison reform, light a candle and ‘stick with it’

OKLAHOMA CITY – State officials say a shift away from Oklahoma’s close-to-first-in-the-nation incarceration rate, toward data-proven programs aiming to more sensibly address non-violent offenses, is on track.

Still, skeptics wonder. As the first round of bill deadlines nears this Thursday, March 14, the Oklahoma Legislature is considering ten bills to create new felonies.

In 2012, with bipartisan support and the blessing of Gov. Mary Fallin, House Bill 3052 mandated or encouraged, among other reforms, post-release supervision and competitive grants for crime analysis, community partnerships and technology, intermediate sanctions for supervision violations, and options for presentencing assessments to identify the non-violent.

This vision, dubbed “justice reinvestment” but not as wonkish as that might sound — emerged over many years.

Advocates drew inspiration from across America. Some tag the idea “Smart on Crime”. Conservative fans deem it “Right on Crime”.
What the approaches have in common is awareness that while national crime rates have moderated or declined, Oklahoma crime stayed comparatively high. The effort to shift focus builds on evidence that not all offenses are created equal, and not all first or second-time offenders need long-term incapacitation. 

Aside from crime rates, the practical case is made from soaring costs, as summarized in an Associated Press report:
“Oklahoma had the nation’s fifth-highest incarceration rate in 2011, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Roughly one out of every 100 Oklahoma males was in jail at that time. Now, state prisons are at full capacity with 26,000 inmates. The Department of Corrections annual budget has topped $460 million, surpassed only by the funding for education and human services.”

Last year, Robert Coombs of the Council of State Governments told me, “People are looking at research and not merely blindly spending more and more. More legislators and people in general than ever before want to know ‘do things work’ and why they work — or don’t.” He said, “The economy is certainly driving people to reevaluate outcomes. The outcomes from spending a lot on prisons have not been that great, and the evidence tells us that better supervision, treatment for drug addition and treatment for mental illness shift people out of the system and make outcomes better.”

Groups like Prison Fellowship are drawn toward reform not only by evidence but also a sense of moral obligation to combine just punishments with provision of hope to the non-violent.
Governor Fallin’s spokesman has reiterated the shift, saying, “We are committed to this program. We want it to work. It is something the governor supports.” 

Weintz and other Fallin advisers defended her rebuffing a grant to finance training and technical needs arising from the state’s enactment of prison reforms. They insist state  agencies have “buy-in” to reform. And, Terri White, head of the Mental Health department, said her agency has enough cash to finance anticipated new “crisis centers” to provide a safe place for arrestees more in need of treatment than incarceration. Fallin’s team says they can do what needs to be done with existing resources. 

Still, Weintz said in a written statement the governor has not consulted with conservative legislators in other states who have guided successful reforms. One of those conservatives is Jerry Madden, a Texas Republican whose legislation guided the Lone Star State’s methodical change in Corrections. 

Last year, Rep. Madden predicted Oklahoma would, if it stayed on track, “reach a tipping point” in controlling costs and lowering crime rates. He encouraged legislators to “go beyond what you have to do. That’s the way to get there. You might even in many areas get better results than you expect, as this builds on itself.” He cautioned against following Kansas, where a “reinvestment” drive began last decade but was soon abandoned. 

We had a net increase of 107 prisoners. In other words, we were stable,” Madden said. That came after a few years of actual decline in prison population and cancellation of one major prison construction project. Allowing five to seven years for implementation is crucial: “Make the change, and stick with it.”

Governor Fallin spoke at a Blue Room ceremony last year that featured graduates of a Tulsa program, Women in Recovery (WIR). That group is run by people who move Heaven and earth, figuratively, to literally give new directions to women who broke the law in one way or another, but whom a judge had decided deserved one more shot. 

Two women who speaking that day needed a few moments, before delivering their remarks, to adjust to a bright shaft of light coming through a window to their left and the audience’s right. That beam lingered on the two before the sun passed on its course.

They described to attendees, the transformation in their lives from drug use and indolence to sobriety and productivity.

It was all quite practical, and yet more. I’ve never forgotten how beautiful, alive and full of new hope were those two, and their fellow graduates.

Curse the darkness, or light a candle? Let’s light a candle.

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