Three town halls indicate tough decisions on incarceration, criminal justice issues

Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, traveled to three towns this month for meetings with citizens where he discussed progress and challenges in the “justice reinvestment initiative.” 

The town hall sessions were part of an effort to redirect the state government’s use of criminal justice system resources in ways that combat crime while avoiding massive further increases in demands for taxpayer money that have been widely anticipated under past policy. 

Steele met with Oklahomans at Cameron University in Lawton, at a Northwestern Oklahoma State University branch campus in Enid, and at the Muskogee Civic Center. 

According to an analysis conducted as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, despite significant increases in government criminal justice spending, the Sooner State’s violent crime rate has decreased less rapidly than is the case nationally. 

Some analyses, including those of the JRI, project a state prison population increase of 11.5 percent over the coming decade. 

Steele presented JRI data at the three town hall meetings that documented the stress on tax revenues that Oklahoma’s existing policies have presented to lawmakers and criminal justice professionals: 

· Between 2000 and 2010, Oklahoma’s prison population increased 15 percent and its corrections spending rose 41 percent, but the state’s violent crime rate decreased only 4 percent as the nation’s violent crime rate fell 20 percent.

· Law enforcement officers per capita have decreased in three of the state’s four major cities, where most crime occurs;· State law hinders post-prison supervision of certain felony offenders, including some who are high-risk;· Last year, 51 percent of felony offenders released from prison were released unsupervised. The number of felony offenders released unsupervised has risen 28 percent since 2005.

· 53 percent of all felony offenders released in 2007 were rearrested within three years.

In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Steele said, “Our criminal justice system is at a crossroads. Business as usual has proven to be incredibly costly and ineffective. Oklahoma can no longer spend and build its way out of this problem. To get safer, we must get smarter, which is what the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is all about.”

Marshall Clement, director of the JRI Project for the Council of State Governments, said: “Oklahoma faces serious challenges, but it’s not too late to address them. You have less of a police presence, but more inmates, and more of those inmates are being released without supervision. You have spent more and more, but see just as much crime, and much of that crime is violent.”

Steele was joined by Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican, and other state officials to kick off the state’s JRI on June 23.

At that event, responding to question from CapitolBeatOK, Clement said that in “every state where the justice reinvestment program has been carried out, crime rates have continued to fall.”
Speaker Steele’s House Bill 2131 provided impetus for the current effort aiming to divert low-risk non-violent offenders into community sentencing and make other reforms. 

The justice reinvestment drive is focusing on three areas, according to Steele: 
“1) Violent crime: Oklahoma needs to determine why its violent crime rate continues to remain high while other states are seeing declines and how to reverse this trend.

“2) Supervision: Oklahoma needs to identify the type of offenders under supervision and how they are progressing to determine the effectiveness of all supervision programs.

“3) Inmate populations: Oklahoma needs to determine precisely who is being incapacitated through incarceration and the effects of that incarceration inside and outside prison; in addition, the state needs to determine how its current sentencing policies and practices are affecting prison growth.”

After this month’s town halls around the state, Steele said projected cost savings, while important, may be less important than fashioning effective supervision policies after time served to “do a better job of preventing repeat offenses. We must do more on the front end rather than after the fact. We have been pleased to learn there are proven, evidence-based ways to do this that we will now begin exploring.”

Refusing to reform the system’s use of resources could prevent the state from controlling its own destiny. In California, after years of rising overcrowding, medical inadequacies and other issues, federal officials seized control of the prison system, ordering unplanned releases of some 40,000 inmates. Steele asserts: 

“Oklahoma simply cannot afford to lose control of its criminal justice system, as California has. The sky isn’t falling here yet, but it could be soon if we don’t get serious about doing things differently.” 

The working group on justice reinvestment, including Steele, plan to make policy recommendations before the Legislature returns to session in February. The panel is studying effective programs that have reallocated, flat-lined or in some cases reduced government spending over several years, while continuing to reduce crime rates. 

Notable to Oklahomans has been the success, in Texas, of a “right on crime” approach. In the Lone Star State, cost avoidance might be the most significant result of a steady shift in system priorities away from incarceration of many offenders and toward stricter post-sentence supervision in programs that have proven effective.

In March, Steele joined Michael Carnuccio of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the state’s leading free market “think tank,” for a press conference at the state Capitol’s Blue Room to tout the Texas model. Carnuccio said Texans are “doing more with less, and it is effectively countering crime.” 

He reflected, “In more areas than football, often in Oklahoma – in fact year after year – we are somewhat obsessed with what Texas is doing. If Texas is doing a better job than formerly on criminal justice, we can do that, and do it better.”