In June, Governor Fallin announced the formation of the Oklahoma Justice Task Force, a group that will bring together a wide range of stakeholders to study the criminal justice system and propose legislation aimed at reducing Oklahoma’s high and growing incarceration rate and all of the problems that come with it. If this sounds familiar, it’s because last summer, she established the Justice Reform Steering Committee, a one-year effort with similar stakeholders and nearly identical goals.
The Steering Committee’s recommendations were turned into several successful bills that reduced mandatory minimums, gave prosecutors more discretion to seek reduced sentences, and raised the felony theft threshold for property crimes. While these were good first steps toward a less punitive justice system, Fallin recognizes that more needs to be done. Here’s what we can expect from Fallin’s justice reform efforts in the coming year.
The return of Justice Reinvestment
This year, the Task Force will have the added advantage of technical assistance from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. Pew and its partners in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative have worked with 33 other states on criminal justice reform, providing data analysis, policy development, and public awareness campaigns in support of legislation to reduce incarceration. It’s not the first time Oklahoma has received assistance from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, but the previous round of Justice Reinvestment reforms proposed in 2012 were watered down by the Legislature and have gone largely unimplemented.
Although the new Task Force just started its work, the experience in other states provides useful clues as to what the next round of reform may look like in Oklahoma. Last year, Pew published a scorecard listing 32 reforms that were implemented in at least one state. Oklahoma checked four of the 32 boxes in 2012: Establishing pre-sentence assessments; capping revocation time; requiring reentry supervision; and requiring data collection. Through its reforms this year, the Legislature checked a couple more boxes by reclassifying minor property crimes and reducing mandatory minimums. If voters pass State Questions 780 and 781 in November, we’ll go even further: reclassifying drug offenses and improving substance abuse and mental health interventions.
With so many ways to improve the criminal justice system, where will the reform process go next? Perhaps the most obvious place to start is a renewed effort to implement the provisions of the Justice Reinvestment Act, as recommended in a 2014 report for the governor’s office by Adam Luck, then a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Luck now sits on the Task Force as a member of the State Board of Corrections. His recommendations included setting aside beds for intermediate supervision revocation, improving substance abuse treatment, and requiring post-release supervision. While those steps are as important now as they were two years ago, they would all require significant investments. In the context of our unending budget emergency and overcrowded prisons, they may simply require more resources than policymakers are willing to devote.
The Task Force will have to follow the money – or lack thereof
For that reason, it may be most useful to look at the “bargain basement” policy options — changes that can be implemented without much money. There are several significant reforms on Pew’s list that meet this criteria.
First, the Task Force should consider revising or eliminating sentencing enhancements. Oklahoma law requires that those convicted of possessing or purchasing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public park, or in the presence of a child, serve at least 50 percent of their sentence in prison; on the second offense, they must serve 90 percent. Research shows that these laws don’t protect children, but they do exacerbate racial disparities and keep people in prison longer when a gradual reintroduction to society through probation is both less expensive and better for public safety.
“Of the five states with the highest imprisonment rates in 2014, four have expanded medical and geriatric parole since 2011. The fifth — Oklahoma — should follow suit.”
Second, the Task Force could realize big savings on corrections by expanding geriatric and medical parole. Oklahoma, like many other states, has seen huge increases in medical costs as their prison populations grow older; Department of Corrections health care expenses increased from $34.2 million in 2000 to $59.4 million in 2012. The Pardon and Parole Board has strict guidelines for granting parole based on age or medical condition, and “even paroling an elderly inmate with a fatal condition is often seen by the public as too lenient,” according to former Board chairman Marc Dreyer. Of the five states with the highest imprisonment rates in 2014, four have expanded medical and geriatric parole since 2011. The fifth — Oklahoma — should follow suit.
Finally, the Task Force should look into establishing a performance incentive funding (PIF) program. PIF programs incentivize local agencies to send fewer low-level offenders to prison by sharing the savings with the local agency. In this way, local agencies are rewarded for lowering the number of prisoners coming from their jurisdictions. California’s PIF program, for example, diverted an average daily population of over 9,500 offenders from going to prison and saved the state almost $280 million in its second year of operation.
This idea is especially promising because it may, in addition to reducing overall prison admissions, help to reduce disparity in sentencing between counties. A recent study by the New York Times shows that rural counties send offenders to prison at a much higher rate than urban counties. In Tulsa County, for example, there were 26.8 prison admissions per 10,000 people in 2014; in Okmulgee County, bordering Tulsa County to the south, that rate was more than doubled (61.1 admissions per 10,000 population). If Okmulgee County were provided incentives to keep more offenders in community supervision rather than sending them to prison, its prison admission rate might be closer to Tulsa’s.
It’s crunch time for Governor Fallin’s criminal justice efforts
There are dozens of options available to Governor Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force, and with Pew’s support, there are good reasons to be hopeful for strong proposals for the next legislative session. While cost is still a big limitation in evaluating options, there are many reforms available that would cost little and could pay big dividends. With only two legislative sessions left in her term in office, the clock is ticking for Governor Fallin to leave a strong legacy of reform. Now is the time for bold strokes.