By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Rhetorically, Governor Mary Fallin has long supported prison reform and careful scrutiny of criminal justice policy.
In practice, however, she has taken three years to get the point where she appears more than ready to press for significant and lasting changes in state policy.
Most of her State of the State speech, delivered Monday (February 1) dealt with the state’s challenging budget crisis driven by a 70 percent drop in tax receipts due to the most significant decline in oil and gas prices since the 1980s.
Other key portions of her address called for changes in government structures and use of financial resources, including in public school governance. And, she pressed to continue the state’s momentum for parental choice in education, which began late in the tenure of her predecessor.
She also devoted a large portion of her address to a clear-eyed summary of what’s gone wrong (over many decades) in the Sooner State’s prison and jail systems. She laid out a leadership vision for finishing a job that begain in 2012, when Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, was Speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Fallin said, “The situation in Oklahoma prisons is very serious. Due to the revenue failure declaration, the Department of Corrections will run out of money this fiscal year.
“To prevent that, the department would have to make cuts causing it to house prisoners in unsecure areas, furlough correctional officers and other undesirable outcomes. Correctional officers put their lives on the line. We have to help them. For the sake of public safety, we have to get additional money to the Department of Corrections.”
The governor’s budget “proposes the Department of Corrections receive an annualized $20 million supplemental appropriation this year and a $10 million appropriation increase next year to address continued offender growth and help keep the public safe.
“But it’s a fact that Oklahoma is still Number One in female incarceration and we’re consistently in the top five in male incarceration. Again, this has been a decades-long problem.”
She called for “serious sentencing changes that will preserve public safety while helping control prison costs and reduce incarceration rates.
“Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Oklahoma’s drug possession sentences haven’t deterred substance abuse and have filled our prisons to over capacity. These sentences, while well intentioned, tend to send some nonviolent offenders into prison for years and years, where they live alongside violent offenders whose bad influences can make nonviolent offenders worse.”
Fallin called explicitly for “lowering Oklahoma’s mandatory drug possession sentences. ”
Detailed in her executive budget and accompanying documents, Fallin asked legislators to take these steps:
“First, let’s allow district attorneys to have the discretion to file any first drug offense as a misdemeanor.
“Next, we lower the mandatory sentence from two to 10 years in prison, to zero to five years in prison.
“For second felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from two years to life, to zero to 10 years.
“And for third felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from six years to life with no probation to zero to 15 years.
“For property crimes, let’s raise the value of a felony crime from $500 to $1,000. The $500 benchmark has been in place since 2002, and it needs to be raised. A teen who steals someone’s smartphone today could be branded for life as a felon because smartphones cost more than $500; twenty years ago, most cell phones cost less than $100.”
The governor understands that powerful interests and important “players” in Oklahoma politics and policy will oppose these overdo steps, and it’s fair to say it would have been easier to accelerate reform when the budget picture was comparatively rosy over the past three years.
Nonetheless, the expression “better late than never” can fairly be applied to her proposals.
The governor will not stand alone (https://city-sentinel.com/2016/01/oklahoma-academy-recommendations-include-tax-reform-budget-transparency-and-medicaid-expansion/) in seeking these changes.
One can hope that prosecutors will see the wisdom of methodically changing state and local policies that have not succeeded in keeping us safe, and which have created a sort of graduate school for criminals in the existing system of prisons and jails.
As Gov. Fallin stressed, “My 40-member task force of law enforcement professionals recommended these proposals, which if fully implemented could prevent thousands of people annually from being a felon for life, which makes it harder for them to get a job and many times leads to the breakup of their family.
“State prisons are at 119 percent capacity. We just can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s not working.
“We must also enhance law enforcement’s ability to protect Oklahomans. We can make law enforcement stronger and more efficient while keeping the public safe by consolidating targeted law enforcement agencies.”
Amen to all of that.
NOTE: This concludes a series of three reports parsing key elements of the governor’s State of the State speech, using as often as possible her own words.