Miracle, or mirage? Justice officials move from chaos to confidence

OKLAHOMA CITY — What a difference a month makes.  In September, a meeting of state officials responsible for implementing new criminal justice legislation unfolded like a disastrous opening night for a poorly conceived Broadway show. It was such a mess that David Prater, the Oklahoma County District Attorney, said “it would require a miracle for us to be ready to implement this law by November 1.”

At October’s meeting, held Thursday, officials were ready to jump into action.

Prater did not call this month’s session a miracle, but seemed satisfied that agencies responsible for putting the law into effect are moving to get the state’s criminal justice system ready for a “game-changing” moment. 

No doubt about it – that is going to be hard work. This “Justice Reinvestment” working group is responsible for implementation of a policy shift away from incarceration of non-violent offenders. 

Just last month, that seemed like Mission Impossible, as the group’s first hearing devolved into polite chaos when a representative for Governor Mary Fallin attempted to represent her boss and two  agencies, leading others in the meeting to gently disagree or flatly contradict some of her responses on the state’s preparation for the start-up. 

That was then, and this is now: Thursday, Speaker of the House Kris Steele, who co-chairs the working group with Prater, was visibly upbeat.  He told CapitolBeatOK, “We’re back on track, and I am much more confident we can meet the November 1 deadline to begin implementation of this historic legislation.”

Behind the encouraging words were specifics from Carrie Slatton-Hodges of the state Mental Health Department. She detailed her agency’s intentions to assess risk of substance abuse and mental illness at the front end of imprisonment for felons. The idea is to divert incoming inmates, where possible, into treatment programs. 

From the Corrections Department came Eric Franklin, who outlined staff training and other practical steps to take when parolees violate conditions of release at the back end of the system. The idea? Get technical violators of a non-violent nature into an appropriate level of sanction – but not one so onerous that it sends them back to a graduate school of crime.

In an important clarification, government officials stressed that parole violators will retain due process rights, and not enter an administrative system before placements in Intermediate Revocation Facilities (IRFs) – acronym for those lighter sanctions — are considered. Those found in technical violations of parole (as opposed to willful criminal conduct) will be eligible for placement at the community, minimum and medium-security levels. 

Corrections officials have not identified which of the state’s far-flung prisons will handle parole violators, but promised that information will become publicly available soon. 

Making the whole expensive process work more efficiently includes shifting an average prison stay of 1.9 years for even minor parole violations toward a six month stint – providing considerable savings for taxpayers.  

The mental health agency also specified steps for training members of the judiciary on their range of options under the new law.

A representative of the state Attorney General’s office said staff had begun planning for a grant-making process (start date: January 1) aimed at helping local law enforcement make better use of technology in crime-fighting. 

Underlying the shift in focus is House Bill 3052 and a “trailer bill” – House Bill 2254 – designed to boost safety and slow spiraling costs for incarceration in Oklahoma, which leads the nation in female imprisonment, and is third in male incarceration. 

A meeting of the full working group is scheduled for November 8, although for the next few months Prater and Steele want issue-specific groups in varied areas – including IRFs, risk assessment and “stakeholder education, and the grant programs – to get into the weeds of implementation. 

may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at 
Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and
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