Justice Reinvestment bill signed, laying basis for policy transformations

On Wednesday (May 9), Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed into law House Bill 3052, the capstone of a three-year effort to bring significant reform to the state’s criminal justice system. A formal bill signing ceremony was held in the state Capitol the next day, to allow supporters and advocates of the reform to be together to mark enactment. 

Fallin, before affixing her name to the document incorporating the “Justice Reinvestment” vision, said the measure’s reforms are among the top priorities of her administration, intended to improve “a primary function of state government. … In addition to lowering crime rates, reducing the incarceration rate and giving law enforcement more resources to fight crime, this bill will help us to save taxpayer dollars by helping our corrections system operate in a more efficient and effective way.”

Fallin said she knew the surge of incarceration numbers over the past decade was unsustainable, leading her to work closely with supporters of the reforms. The Sooner State has had, in several recent years, the nation’s highest incarceration rate of women, and one of the highest incarceration rates, period.

The state Capitol large conference room where the signing was held was packed with advocates, including Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, Mental Health Commissioner Terri White, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, Corrections Director Justin Jones, state Rep. Lisa Billy of Lindsay, Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Taylor, state Sen. Jonathan Nichols of Norman, and Amy Santee of the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

A half-dozen television cameras and most of the state Capitol press corps assured wide visibility for the historic occasion. 

Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, reflected, “Today marks the beginning of a tougher, smarter fight against crime. Police will get more resources, offenders will be held more accountable, prisons will have the space to incarcerate dangerous criminals and Oklahoma will be much safer as a result. We’re thrilled to have been part of the unprecedented collaboration across our entire criminal justice system that has delivered this meaningful law to the people of Oklahoma.”

Steele noted the reforms in the legislation are “backed up by data” drawn from the experiences of other states. 

The new law puts in a place a state grant program for local law enforcement agencies, intended to allow “real time” use of high technology to guide use of resources, to be quickly deployed in areas where crime is spiking. Creation of the state grant system comes as federal grant dollars for such purposes are, generally, drying up.

Among the measure’s most notable changes, accounting for the majority of its projected impact on incarceration numbers and on recidivism, is a mandate for nine months of post-release supervision of all felons. The bill also established intermediate sanction facilities, evaluations of accused felons, mental health and substance abuse resources, and other changes. 

Advocates anticipate the new provisions will allow the state to flatten the growth rate of incarcerated Oklahomans, freeing some resources for more effective alternatives. 

The ceremonial signing came one year to the day after Fallin put her signature on House Bill 2131, another Steele bill intended to divert low-risk nonviolent offenders to less expensive forms of supervision rather than imprisonment. 

That measure, in turn, built upon House Bill 2998, a 2010 statute aimed at more effective programs for non-violent female offenders. 

Still ahead, on the November ballot, will be a referred constitutional ballot measure that, if approved, would remove the governor from review of all paroles. (Oklahoma is the only state with this requirement, presently.)

Approval of the ballot question, combined with the recasting of other provisions in the three statutes, is projected to yield more than $200 million in savings, advocates say.   

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Steele’s co-sponsor, said in comments provided to CapitolBeatOK, “We’ve made a historic public safety reform that puts Oklahoma’s broken criminal justice system back on a sustainable path. By being both tough on crime and fiscally conservative, this law will reduce violent crime, give crime fighters the tools to do their job and ensure our criminal justice system keeps Oklahoma families and communities safe.”

Robert Coombs of the Council of State Governments (CSG) praised Oklahoma for establishing a justice reinvestment process which brought together  “all stakeholders. It was bipartisan and inter-branch.” He said Oklahoma is “on par with every other state we have been working with” in criminal justice reform. 

He said the state’s series of laws over the past three years set it on course to control costs, curb recidivism and establish “sustainability” as an alternative to spiraling cost.

Coombs concluded, “The bad news is that this is just beginning. He urged state policymakers to bring discipline and determination in prioritizing limited resources to improve the system. He said the national group will support “implementation, and track the outcomes.” 

Speaker Steele grew emotional as he praised the large group of reformers who joined the effort. Indeed, the support coalition ranged from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats. 

He praised Santee and Margaret Erling, both of Tulsa, for their past in pushing the measure to passage. Santee of the Kaiser Foundation is a leader at the early successful examples of reform, the Women in Recovery program.  

Steele also singled out members of his staff who drafted the legislation. 

Later in the day, during his weekly encounter with Capitol reporters, Steele said the measure’s passage was one of the highlights of his career in public life. Estimated first year cost of the reforms, analysts have said, is around $3.5 million. Steele reflected, “the tide has turned” in a better direction on criminal justice in Oklahoma. 

In her comments at the signing, Fallin praised the Speaker, saying she knew the cause had become “near and dear” to Steele’s heart.  

H.B. 3052 will take effect on November 1.