Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Once upon a time in Oklahoma, elected representatives of the people enacted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a package of laws designed to shift some criminal justice provisions from unnecessarily punitive strictures toward proven methods that have led to lower costs, less crime and more compassionate responses to the mentally ill and non-violent offenders.
Speaker of the House Kris Steele led the effort. Gov. Mary Fallin helped, and signed the laws that passed with strong majorities in both the House and the Senate.
And then, not much happened. After Steele left the Legislature, key Republicans “slow-played” reform. Reporters performing due diligence learned about, and reported upon, the sneering sense of misplaced superiority that key players had about criminal justice reform. Emails and other information clarified the dismissive views, among some aides to Fallin, toward JRI.
Worth noting is this: The ideas Steele advanced and Fallin backed were and are similar to those long supported by the likes of former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, conservative direct mail wizard Richard Viguerie, and the late Evangelical leader Charles Colson.
Reform opponents did the policy equivalent of the old “Four Corners” offense perfected in days of yore by the late Henry Iba’s Oklahoma A&M basektball teams.
In tough games where they had the lead, the Aggies (as the OSU Cowboys were then known) operated within the rules of their game, passing the ball around the four corners at the offensive end of the court. The tactic took precious minutes off the game clock to preserve leads, and victories.
All of that was in sports, in games. Still, it eventually provoked a reaction.
Teams across the land of the free had to give up the gambit and get going. A shot clock was introduced requiring that teams shoot the ball rather quickly after crossing half-court in every offensive possession.
Public policy sometimes resembles a “game,” it is true: But after decades of rising populations in Oklahoma’s jails and prisons, the dubious distinction of residing as Number One in female incarceration and habitually top five rankings for incarceration of males, “games” concerning Oklahoma’s corrections policies, and legal provisions that feed the overcrowding beast, took on deeply sinister connotations.
After it became clear that JRI would not be implemented, for a second (or was it the third?) time caring and committed citizens worked hard to press for the kinds of reform that have, in several states, led to lower incarceration rates, less recidivism and more efficient use of taxpayers’ money.
Kris Steele (by this time the former Speaker of the House) worked in a bipartisan manner with groups as diverse as the Oklahoma Policy Council and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, eventually establishing Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
Steele’s team then gathered far-more-than sufficient signatures from citizens to qualify two measures for the November 2016 statewide ballot.
Despite late opposition from some leaders of Oklahoma law enforcement, both of the initiative statues passed easily.
As the twin ballot campaigns unfolded (and even before), Gov. Fallin rediscovered the commitment to reform she had shown in 2012. She named a task force to fashion a package that could get through the same Legislature that had run out the clock on JRI.
The task force’s ideas were worthy additions to the reform package for the Sooner State, but in the last couple of legislative sessions, the measures with greatest substance languished – even though the concepts were explicitly designed after data-proven models from places like the Lone Star State.
To put a fine point on it: Criminal justice reform in Texas took place while current Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a strong conservative, was chief executive in Baja Oklahoma.
The current chairman of Oklahoma’s House Judiciary Committee on Criminal Justice and Corrections is state Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha.
A former prosecutor, Biggs is closely allied with members of the state District Attorneys Association. He has spent this legislative off-season receiving a variety of honors that fit the DA’s worldview
And, he has sent around a “survey” asking for stakeholders to specify what should be specified violent or non-violent in state law.
Nothing wrong with any of that, necessarily.
But there is this:
Biggs and his allies have said during the legislative session that he was not slowing down implementation of reforms envisioned in the two state questions. In fact, students of the Legislature were informed this summer that every provision of the two ballot measures went into effect.
But of course as the post-JRI experience proves, statutory language is meaningless without enforcement (in this matter, that means implementation by the DAs and the state) and passage of “trailer’ bills at the Capitol to carry provisions into force. Over the past three years, Biggs and like-minded individuals sustained and perfected the “slow play” of 2013.
When Biggs and other state officials declare the two ballot measures have gone into effect, are they misleading the state’s voters?
The question is posed to all stakeholders, in light of the following:
Mary Fallin has not carried through on the “right-sizing” of government she and others in the GOP promised in 2010 and 2014.
Certain Republicans at the Capitol have engaged in of shenanigans and assorted misbehavior that brought dishonor to both the government and their party. They are now former legislators.
Certain Republicans in the Legislature (in alliance with the governor) enacted unconstitutional measures to increase taxes – and the state Supreme Court has taken an expansive view of the word “fees.”
The governor’s special session call for September 25 is broad enough for several truckloads of new fees (the revenue-enchancers formerly known as taxes) to advance. In growing government, it seems many Republicans are willing to cooperate with Democrats.
And, some Republicans act as if citizens should actually believe that Scott Biggs is representative of the state on issues of criminal justice reform.
It’s entirely reasonable to be sick, and far-past-weary, of reading press releases that declare something is happening, when it is not. The process that has unfolded since early in this decade is how governments lose the confidence and trust of the people.
It’s enough to make a granite column, and informed citizens, weep.
Not “once upon a time,” but right now.