Still tough on crime, Sooner State seeks “smart” prison policy shift

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahomans pride themselves on the state’s “tough on crime” reputation. Indeed, Oklahoma has America’s top female incarceration rate; it ranks third in male imprisonment, yet crime rates remain high.
The last few years, the raw data and spiraling costs of prisons set the stage for at least a partial shift away from past policies. Whether it’s called “smart on crime” or “right on crime” or the somewhat wonkish moniker of “justice reinvestment,” the policy shift presents challenges.
On Tuesday, CapitolBeatOK reported Gov. Mary Fallin’s rebuff of federal financing for some costs of implementing historic changes enacted last year and envisioned to flatten increases in that burgeoning prison population.
A forthcoming story will include detail explanations from Fallin’s staff for foregoing that cash from a Council of State Governments (CSG) grant in collaboration for the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Meanwhile, legislation working its way through the House of Representatives could transform a council designed to focus on offender “reentry” programs.
One thing is certain: Oklahoma’s incarceration rate continues to rise, with some moderation in reported crime rates, while nationwide state prison population fell almost 2 percent in 2011 and violent crime rate dropped 3.8 percent.
Both the Senate President pro temp, a small town Republican, and the House minority leader, an urban Democrat, told CapitolBeatOK they were confused about changes to what’s called the Reentry Policy Council, contained in House Bill 2042, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie.
In existing law, part of an envisioned shift in Corrections (prison) programs away from locking up non-violent offenders, the Council consists of law enforcement and criminal justice professionals from across the state. However, Rep. Jason Murphey told CapitolBeatOK the council has been inactive the last few years.
H.B. 2042 – advanced after little discussion in the Public Safety Committee on Feb. 27, would give full latitude to the governor, speaker of the House and Senate President Pro Temp to choose Council members.
That bill would also reduce the number of council members from 11 to nine. Staffing would be provided by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services – popularly known as OMES (“Oh-Mess”).
Under existing law, the governor has three appointments, specified as a law enforcement officer, a Corrections official and a crime victim.
Under current law, the Speaker has four choices, to include a House member, a representative “of a faith-based organization involved with reintegration of inmates,” a previously convicted person, and a “mental health and substance abuse official.”
The President Pro Temp now has four picks: a Senator, representative of a for-profit halfway house specializing in inmate reintegration, a nonprofit with the same purpose, and a district attorney or his/her designee.
Instead, H.B. 2042 would put the number of Reentry Council members at three appointees each for the “Big Three” (governor, speaker, pro temp) on the nine-member panel.
Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, commented, “There’s a reason we had certain people, or groups to be represented. I’ve not heard any reason that we would want to change that. I’d be interested in sitting down … and getting input on why to change that at this point.”
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Del City Democrat, told CapitolBeatOK, “Our caucus is proud supporters of the justice reinvestment initiative. We stood with [former] Speaker [Kris] Steele and provided the margin of victory to pass that important legislation. We were proud to do that. Without our support that historic legislation would not have passed. 
“Oklahoma has to find a way either to invest in Corrections or find a way to flatten the curve in incarceration rates.” Inman wanted to study the bill’s particulars before commenting further.
Commenting on Gov. Fallin’s rejection of money for implementation of justice reinvestment, Rep. Inman said, “I can say I was very disappointed in the governor’s decision not to take the CSG grant to help with start up of the justice reinvestment initiative process. I don’t understand that decision.”
“JRI” was modeled on laws in other states, enacted in recent years and proving effective in reducing incarceration, including in neighboring Texas.
When created, the Council was intended to review Corrections policy and “after release” policies, identify program and service gaps and recommend changes, review policies toward volunteers, and review licensing procedures “to eliminate barriers to employment that are unrelated to the conduct underlying the conviction.”
H.B. 2062 also adds to council duties a charge to “monitor the administration and implementation” of the 2012 law, annually evaluate effectiveness and impact, and deliver evaluations to state officials.
Through a spokesman, Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, declined comment on the new version of H.B. 2042, which was originally a leadership bill.

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