Prisons and purity: Is Oklahoma still crazy after all these years?
Published: January 15th, 2014
OKLAHOMA CITY – Conservatives are “slow playing” prison reform in Oklahoma. Consequently, the Sooner State remains “No. 1” – leading the nation in rates of female incarceration, and ranking a depressing No. 4 for men.
A review of emails from within the administration of Gov. Mary Fallin make it clear that fear of being tagged “soft-on-crime” led her – even as many celebrated Fallin’s signature on what was considered “game-changing” legislation in 2012 – to move sharply against the underlying wisdom of fashioning alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent crimes.
I know the advocates of prison reform. Many of them are friends of mine. And no one in the Fallin administration is 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 – set the table with the absence of vision among members of Fallin’s staff.
One key Fallin adviser deemed prison reform “liberal” as she brokered meetings in which the intention was to freeze out then-Speaker Kris Steele, in the closing months of his time in the Legislature.
The governor’s lawyer, Steve Mullins, insists hefty campaign contributions from private prison operators had no impact on the Fallin administration’s decision to stall implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), the program intended to mark a pivot point in the state criminal justice system.
I 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, 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.”
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 Fallin’s administration make it abundantly clear that some of her staff consider justice reinvestment – redirecting limited resources from pricey imprisonment of non-violent offenders toward proven alternatives – is a liberal idea.
That news would be shocking news to many conservatives, including former Attorney General Ed Meese, New Right fundraising guru Richard Viguerie, and a generation of respected policy analysts. Reformers include Republicans in the Texas “Right on Crime” movement.
A 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.
To be clear, 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.
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.
State grants for local law enforcement are intended to flow out of the 2012 reforms to support time-tested and not particularly innovative steps. These would help put manpower and energy into “real time” police visibility in parts of town where crime is actually occurring, as it is occurring.
This is not a new idea. However, the difference between 2014 and 1994 is the ability to use information systems to shift resources rapidly, even daily, when burglary or other patterns indicate a shift in focus for the professional criminal class.
Such steps could revolutionize the cost structure for combating crime. Pieces of each idea are under way, with the most progress coming in the new sensitivity to addressing mental health needs as they touch the criminal justice system.
What’s lacking are “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.
This year, Oklahoma, with Mary Fallin at the helm, will either begin to implement criminal justice reforms in a meaningful and professional way or remain mired in the failed policies of vengeance against people who might still be salvaged.
You may contact Pat at firstname.lastname@example.org .