Photo by Sal Falko used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Sal Falko used under a Creative Commons license.

For several days in April, the Tulsa County Jail refused inmates arrested on municipal charges. The drastic measure was taken in response to severe overcrowding. At the height of the crisis, the facility contained 1,968 prisoners, which is over 300 more prisoners than the Tulsa County Sheriff’s office said they could safely hold.

The number was brought down significantly after officials worked to streamline processing of offenders and release some of those who posed no risk to public safety. Even so, the jail remains over capacity and vulnerable to any spikes in arrests in the future. It was another sign that Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is near the breaking point.

The crisis in county jails is mirrored in state prisons. Incarceration grew rapidly throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and it has shown no signs of coming down. With state budgets already lean after years of cuts, and lawmakers looking to cut taxes further, we simply can’t afford to incarcerate so many without creating serious safety risks.

Last year, there seemed to be inklings of hope. Former House Speaker Kris Steele led an effort to enlist Oklahoma in the justice reinvestment campaign, which seeks data-driven ways to reduce incarceration and put the savings back into crime reduction efforts. The resulting bill, HB 3052, made some beneficial changes, but its success depended on effective implementation and a commitment by lawmakers and law enforcement to pursue further reforms.

That hasn’t happened. Warning signs came early, when the Senate stripped out most of HB 3052’s very modest sentencing reforms before it was passed. The bill called for a $5 million grant program to local law enforcement agencies for new strategies to combat violent crime. Lawmakers funded less than half that ($2 million), which Attorney General Scott Pruitt has so far declined to distribute.

Oklahoma initially pursued a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to help fund training of law enforcement and criminal justice personnel tasked with implementing the new law. Governor Fallin gave initial approval of the grant application in January. However, less than a month later she reversed her position and announced that Oklahoma would not pursue the funds. In response to this and other actions by the Governor, the co-chairs of the Justice Reinvestment working group resigned. They said the Governor was being dishonest about supporting reforms while actually working behind the scenes to derail them.

The Governor asserted that Oklahoma could fund the necessary training with taxpayer dollars, so the grant was not needed. In the grant budget originally proposed by Oklahoma, the largest item was a series of trainings by the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati. These trainings would teach Department of Corrections personnel to conduct substance abuse treatment, anger management, and impulse control classes with parolees at risk of returning to prison.

Clint Castleberry, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Educational Services Administrator, said the DOC is moving forward with the trainings and should be able to fund them. However, the reason he gave for funds being available did not bode well for the reforms. He said they could use money that had been budgeted for treating these offenders but not used, because the courts had not sent them any. Castleberry said just two offenders had been scheduled to enter the program going forward. The lack of activity is a sign that Oklahoma’s judges and district attorneys are not participating in the new options authorized by the law to choose treatment over incarceration. Without their participation, the current reforms will have no effect.

Efforts are underway to replace the working group tasked with implementing the law with one made up entirely of political appointees. Meanwhile, Senate public safety chair Rob Johnson said he supported funding Justice Reinvestment this year only begrudgingly, because it was “too soft on crime.” It’s an astonishing statement—that a law which does little more than provide added supervision and treatment for parolees at risk of being sent back to prison could be viewed as soft on crime. 

The justice reinvestment bill was always only a first step of many desperately needed reforms. Its significance was not just in the changes made by the law itself, but as the sign that Oklahoma leaders would bring a smarter perspective to criminal justice policy going forward. But with the departure of the most committed champions of reform, lawmakers are back to being more interested in posturing against criminals than considering even the most moderate solutions.