Speaker Kris Steele sketches Texas results, works to advance “justice reinvestment” model

Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele this week discussed in some detail what he described as criminal justice reforms in Texas that he said “have been impressive on several fronts. Over the past five years, Texas has saved $2 billion in incarceration costs and has its lowest violent crime rate in decades. These are both impressive achievements.” 

In Steele’s view, “perhaps the most important facet of their reforms is the fact that the Texas Legislature and the public took politics and emotions out of their debate and instead focused on the facts. By doing this, they came to the realization that there is a better way to approach criminal justice. Texas has long had a reputation as a tough-on-crime state, and it still has that reputation, but it is now achieving this distinction in a smarter, more effective way than it did in the past. 

“Texas realized that some of the most important work in criminal justice occurs in the area of prevention, treatment and supervision of individuals known to be at risk of offending. In addition, they adjusted the state’s resources accordingly to address this issue. As a result, Texas is utilizing their resources effectively and producing better outcomes at the same time.”

Asked to mention any other states with results for the justice reinvestment approach that have been particularly impressive to him, Steele told CapitolBeatOK, “Ohio has done a lot of good work with its supervision programs. A few years ago, Ohio found it had some great supervision programs, but also had a lot of bad supervision programs that were in effect canceling out the results of the effective supervision programs. They reallocated their resources accordingly so that effective programs were beefed up and ineffective programs were phased out. What they did in Ohio is precisely what Justice Reinvestment is all about: Using empirical data to determine what’s working and what isn’t working and realigning resources accordingly.”

Steele said his original interest in criminal justice reform “occurred when I conducted an interim study about the high percentage of incarcerated women in Oklahoma. A chord was struck when statistics in that study demonstrated the immense financial and human resource costs to the state of Oklahoma that result from our disproportionate incarceration rates.

“Not only has our state’s appropriation to DOC increased 41 percent in the last decade with virtually no change in the violent crime rate; statistically, children of incarcerated parents are much more likely to become incarcerated at some point in life. These trends must be reversed.”

Steele has drawn statewide attention to the Women in Recovery program in Tulsa. Asked to recall the development of his ties to the Tulsa-based group, he said, “My most distinctive memory of Women in Recovery came when I first visited the program. I witnessed a group of intelligent, sincere and determined women who seemed to share a common trait of low self-esteem.

“These women had faced challenges and difficulties that most of us could never imagine. Because of the opportunity and training afforded them through WIR, they had become highly-motivated and equipped to succeed. 

“I remember one individual sharing her personal story of how she battled addiction most of her life. She explained she never applied herself because she never believed she could succeed. She was a mother of a beautiful daughter, but never valued the responsibility associated with parenting, due in large part to substance abuse. Through WIR, she received valuable treatment for her addiction, parenting skills, and job training.

“She graduated at the top of her welding class and was invited to speak at her graduation. Her daughter and entire family were present for the big day. She said it was the first time she heard her ten-year-old daughter say, ‘I am proud of you, Mom.’ This woman is now a confident, employed and competent mother. She is fulfilling her goal of being a positive, productive citizen.”

CapitolBeatOK asked how Oklahoma reached the point of such unsustainable and marginally effective programs when it comes to issues of incarceration, prisons, jails, crime and punishment. Steele reflected on the issue for a time, then responded:

“I don’t think it’s any one thing. Some of it is because of policies that have come from the Legislature. Some of it is because of the social struggles our state faces. A lot of it has to do with drugs, broken families and the generational cycles of crime that often result when those types problems enter the lives of our citizens.

“But it’s important to note that the situation we are dealing with is not entirely unique to Oklahoma. We live in a country that has more of its population in prison per capita than any other place on earth, so the discussion about how we got to this crisis point is occurring nationwide. It’s valuable to have this discussion because it will be difficult to figure out where we need to go if we aren’t fully informed about how we got to our current situation.

“I don’t know if we have all the answers yet about how we got to where we are in Oklahoma, but that’s something the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is studying. We all have our suspicions, but the real truth will lie in a thorough, wise, and fair interpretation of the data.”