Governor Mary Fallin

by Patrick B. McGuigan

OKLAHOMA CITY — Advocates of the historic criminal justice system reforms approved in 2012, widely known as the “justice reinvestment” initiative (JRI), are reeling over a variety of changes in the program – and over the resignation of JRI author Kris Steele, former speaker of the state House, from the inter-agency and private sector working group that was overseeing implementation.

Gov. Mary Fallin’s legal counsel, Steve Mullins, has guided major shifts in administration and oversight in recent weeks, effectively gutting the infrastructure that led implementation until mid-February.

On March 14 (last Thursday), Mullins characterized the JRI Working Group, co-chaired by Steele with Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, as “ad hoc” – and said that it could no longer guide implementation JRI.

Steele and others designed the program as a means to flatten Oklahoma’s spiraling rates of incarceration (http://watchdog.org/56349/ok-ready-or-not-justice-reinvestment-legislation-takes-effect-november-1/) and provide methodical steps for new policies and procedures to shift non-violent offenders away from imprisonment and toward treatment and, when needed, mental health counseling.

Even before the tumultuous end of the March 14 meeting, the group’s discussions illustrated challenges with implementation.

Corrections officials said only a handful of parole violators were in the agency’s pipeline for intermediate sanctions (short of a return to full-fledged imprisonment) for what were described as technical rather than substantive or deliberate parole violations.

Mental Health Department officials, in contrast, described early implementation touching more than 120 individuals, in new assessments of those adjudicated. The new approach is intended to guide possible alternative sentencing, drug counseling needs and other policies and procedures. The department is into the process of training both government employees and authorized vendors in use of professional screening and assessment tools for those found guilty.

The March 14 meeting fell apart as Mullins explained and then tried to defend the governor’s decision to rebuff grants from the Council of State Governments (CSG) intended to cover implementation costs for the shift away from incarceration of non-violent offenders (http://watchdog.org/72606/ok-gov-fallins-team-defends-rebuff-of-prison-reform-funding/).

In discussion about the decision, Steele and Prater pointed out that the governor had advocated the grant for months, specifically asking for CSG to extend the support in a letter last fall. During an increasingly testy exchange, Mullins professed support for the working group, but made it clear the members no longer had any standing in JRI implementation.

The meeting ended when Steele and Prater said they could no longer ask the diverse group of public officials and private sector stakeholders to continue meeting when the governor’s office had clearly gone in a different direction.

Steele and Prater both quit the working group and said it would no longer meet. The argument among the three men and the dismay of reform supporters was widely reported in online, print and broadcast news stories the weekend of March 15-17.

CapitolBeatOK first broke the story of an exchange of letters between one of Fallin’s lawyers, CSG officials and members of the working group in which the governor’s lawyer said she was turning away the anticipated support.

Fallin’s office killed the grant request after the working group had already made a job offer to a coordinator for the JRI program. The job offer had been tendered based on the understanding the grant process was advancing.

At the working group meeting, Melissa McLawhorn Houston, chief of staff to Attorney General Scott Pruitt (http://watchdog.org/74578/ok-attorney-generals-chief-of-staff-unresponsive-to-question-on-programs-for-non-violent-offenders/), emphasized the AG’s is working on violent crime fighting initiatives, including an envisioned grant program for local law enforcement agencies, but avoided direct responses to Prater’s question about the push for alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

For days before the working group meeting, Houston refused to answer CapitolBeatOK’s request for a written response on the issue of non-violent crime and alternatives to imprisonment.

On the evening of March 13 (Wednesday), the night before the JRI working group meeting, the Oklahoma House passed House Bill 2042, a measure changing the composition of the Reentry Policy Council. The bill is at the heart of Fallin’s change in administration and oversight of last year’s prison reforms.

The measure, first deemed a “Speaker’s bill” but carried the last few weeks by state Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, passed 57-35. The proposal is now in the state Senate for consideration. Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, is Senate sponsor.

Gov. Fallin asserts the measure will “formalize” implementation of JRI. Fallin’s office, in a press release, said the 2012 law was envisioned to transition “non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems to drug and alcohol treatment. It also aims to reduce the recidivism rate by providing supervision for those who have been released from prison. The law also gives courts the option to use a presentence risk and needs-assessments/evaluations to help guide sentencing decisions regarding the most appropriate level of punishment, supervision, and treatment for each offender.”

That broader change in philosophy concerning non-violent offenders was part of an envisioned strategy, modeled on successful programs in Texas and elsewhere, to flatten or even lower Corrections costs. Oklahoma is consistently among the top five states for incarceration rates, as high as number one for female imprisonment and third for male imprisonment.

The working group, a coalition of state agencies and “stakeholders” met regularly for several months to advance JRI implementation. As Fallin’s staff concentrated implementation in her office, the attorney general’s office, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Department of Corrections, tension with “stakeholders” increased, leading to last Thursday’s confrontation in the working group meeting, held at the state Supreme Court building.

The Re-Entry Council (http://watchdog.org/74591/ok-gov-fallin-hails-bill-that-revises-council-overseeing-prisoner-reentry-programs/), created several years ago, was originally structured to include designated representatives of law enforcement, with one position held for a formerly incarcerated individual. Rep. Murphey’s bill removes the law enforcement specificity, giving three appointments each to the governor, the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Temp of the Senate. Reform advocates fear Murphey’s bill lays the basis for a more political, rather than policy-oriented, administration of policy.

Meetings of the existing working group, characterized as “ad hoc” in the governor’s recent comments, have been publicly announced and have followed provisions of the Open Meetings Act. Answering a question from CapitolBeatOK two weeks ago, House Speaker T.W. Shannon also used the “ad hoc” term to characterize the existing Working Group.

In exchanges with CapitolBeatOK, Murphey had deemed the emerging changes to the Council, created during the speakership of former state Rep. Lance Cargill, as non-controversial.

Last week, referencing the original structure of the council as enacted during the speakership of Rep. Lance Cargill, Murphey told CapitolBeatOK, “I think I thought I would just make it the choice of the appointing authorities without restraining their options. I don’t remember a lot of the specifics but probably knew that enhancing the authority of the board could conflict with restricting the applicant pool to the Cargill-era vision.”


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