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COMMENTARY: How the ‘Pay for Success’ program could boost prison reform

Senator Kim David
Senator Kim David

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Associate Publisher


A proposal authorizing a “pay for success” revolving fund could boost prison reform prospects in Oklahoma. Enactment would mark an overdue start to practical programs envisioned in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) of 2014.

Having cleared the upper chamber, the measure’s next stop will be in the state House.

Here is a report on the proposal’s status, and closing reflections on its importance.

Senate Bill 1278, by Senator Kim David, R-Porter, would create a state Treasury fund, managed by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES). A total of $2 million would be designated the “Criminal Justice Pay for Success Revolving Fund.”

Explicit objective of the legislation, and of OMES management, is “reducing public sector costs.” OMES disbursements to “social service providers” would come only after “the delivery of predefined criminal justice outcomes.”

Initially, there’s one existing private sector program that could take on the assignment, and that’s Tulsa’s Women in Recovery (WIR).

Once a revolving fund is in place, here’s how it would work.

* WIR leaders sign a “pay-for-success” contract. A private donor or donors fund WIR.

* WIR incorporates a new wave of 100 women into its program. Every one of those would be, as Sen. David told me,  “women at imminent risk of long-term incarceration.”

* Explicitly contracted outcomes (work preparation, life skills training, drug and alcohol counseling and so forth) would be set forth in the contract. OMES would then make payment only if the conditions of the contract are met. To be clear, as described in a summary Sen. David shared with me, “If, and only if, specific outcomes are achieved,” the state “re-pays a portion of the savings [to taxpayers] realized. Otherwise, the state owes nothing.”

An important point that should be made here:

* All risks are borne by the private operation, not the state. Nothing gets paid until women have successfully completed the program.

Here’s the heart of the issue: Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any state in the nation, an arena where “We’re Number One!” rings pretty hollow.

“Right on Crime” researchers, based at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, estimate that with just 6,000 fewer inmates, the Sooner State could shrink its annual Corrections budget by $100 million.

Thousands are imprisoned, at an average cost of roughly $26,000 per inmate, for non-violent and/or drug-related crimes.

At WIR, a program supported by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the environment is entirely different than at regular prison and jail facilities, which too often function as graduate schools of crime.
Monday (March 13), the measure was debated in the state Senate. In response to questions and during debate, Sen. David emphasized the bill is intended to support WIR — “a program already working in the private sector” – but that, if successful as in other states, the concept could be applied more broadly “to reduce taxpayer costs and improve results in the lives of people who have committed a crime.”

Sen. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, said he appreciates the focus on “families, communities, a better approach.”

Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee , asked Sen. David to explain how this program would be distinct from drug courts.

She replied, “The drug court has been effective with some first and second time offenders. This is an approach for women who have failed in other programs or efforts, who need the kind of environment Women in Recovery provides before they can change their lives. WIR meets more needs than what the drug court can for them. This is an intense 12-18 month program.”

During brief debate, state Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, praised the legislation. He told colleagues, “This is a bill for people who don’t have a lobbyist. It’s a bill that would most benefit those who don’t yet know they need it. This is the kind of thing we need to do more often out here, and I am all for it.”

Sen. Rick Brinkley, R-Owasso, described the measure as “one of the most important bills we can do this session.”

Summing up her case for S.B. 1278, Sen. David described her early visits with women in the WIR program: “When I first heard these testimonies, it touched my heart. One of these women told me they felt as if they were always on the outside looking in.  They told me, ‘We want normal lives, an opportunity to start over and do better.’

“My colleagues, these are women who want to take care of their children and their families, and do better in their future lives.”

The proposal gained approval on a roll call vote of 43-0, and now moves to the state House of Representatives.

In an interview with Oklahoma Watchdog, Sen. David, now in her fourth year at the Legislature, said “I want to find ways to stop criminalizing so much of the population.”

Sen. David’s legislation would take the effectiveness of the WIR program and begin to bridge into effective and ongoing public policy, with alternatives to incarceration an explicit aim of the state, as was promised in measures early in this decade.

Just a few hours before this week’s Senate floor debate, she told The City Sentinel, “I feel very good about the vote. This legislation is pretty simple. It creates the fund, allows the program to exist, …  to make this methodical and effective.

“Keep in mind that the women who will be in this program would otherwise be headed to prison any way – so they’re being held accountable for what got them in trouble. “

WIR’s approach is one of accountability and responsibility. It is in not pie-in-the-sky. It is positive and emphasizes proactive behavior, not good intentions.

As Sen. David remarked,  “it raises the hope to lower costs and improve outcomes.”

At just three pages, S.B. 1278 is a model of plain language and realism. If enacted, it would take effect on November 1, 2014 – a date that is overdue, but realistic.

Sen. David concluded our interview with this thumbnail of the practical and hopeful aspects of the program:  “With this diversion program there is absolutely no payout until WIR has done the job. I believe this is a win-win for taxpayers, and for these women who have a better chance to turn their lives around.”

The cost: $2 million to get started.

The savings, if programs like WIR become the norm for the non-violent: Hundreds of million of dollars, a smaller Corrections population, and a brighter future.

The prospect of hope: Priceless.

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