Guest Blog (Mike Connelly): The questions we should be asking about criminal justice reform

Mike Connelly was the first research director the now-defunct Oklahoma Sentencing Commission in the 1990s.  He went on to direct sentencing commissions in Maryland and Wisconsin before returning to Oklahoma to manage the state DOC’s Evaluation & Analysis unit until his recent retirement.  He also consulted with the Pew Center on the States’ Justice Reinvestment effort in Missouri last year.

When there is an obvious problem, any sincere effort to address it tends to be greeted uncritically.  Until this post at OK Policy Blog, I hadn’t seen a single effort by state media to critically analyze the current criminal justice reform proposal being considered by the state legislature.  But there remain questions that we should ask as it goes through the legislative process and later into implementation.

A policy isn’t really a policy until it’s implemented, no matter what the legislation says. In the case of this legislation, the DAs and judges responsible for the sentencing were not among those who invited the reform consultants into the state, and they have never shown interest in real reform. To reduce incarceration, DAs and judges would have to choose probation over prison, treatment over incarceration, and shorter sentences. Have they ever indicated that they would do this if given more information about the defendant? Is there anything in the proposals that would encourage them to make changes in their practices?

Regarding the grants to law enforcement, one of the predictable uses of new money in tough fiscal times is to substitute funding for programs that would otherwise have been cut.  This isn’t a knock on the groups; they have staff and procedures to maintain.  But it does mean that sending grant money to these communities doesn’t guarantee anything new happening. Does the Attorney General, who will be responsible for verifying the new uses, have staff with both qualifications and time to do this effectively?

Authorizations without appropriations are a constant occurrence in policymaking.  Obviously adequate resources will have to be available to fund the grants, the treatment, new facilities, the assessments, and every other new reform. The proposals are intended to save money over a ten year period because of reduced prison populations.  But the savings, however much, won’t be realized all at once.  Money will have to be made available upfront for the increased treatment and the additional period of supervision for offenders.  Where is that money going to come from?  Will the state Department of Corrections have to take it out of a budget that two years ago saw monthly employee furloughs?  If DOC doesn’t have the funding to build intermediate facilities, will private providers pick up the slack?  What are the long-term implications for keeping prison populations and expenditures down when much of the proposed reform is delivered by entities who depend on a constant or growing level of incarceration?

Finally, the end goal of these proposals is to reduce crime rates through more effective public safety spending.  It will not be enough for crime to drop after passage to say the proposals were successful.  If surrounding states also see drops in the same period, we would be hard pressed to attribute the reductions to the proposals, nor could we if other major variables that might influence crime changed within the state in the same period.

Moreover, even if the reforms clearly are responsible, how will the state know which of the reforms had how much impact?  Just as with the implementation monitoring, the proposals will need unbiased evaluation by professionals without “a dog in the hunt.”  The state used to have a Criminal Justice Resource Center that served that purpose, but its functions and staff were transferred to the OSBI.  Does the legislation assign OSBI or trained evaluators at a state university the function of evaluating the actual changes in crime before and after the proposals?

It is tempting to be more jubilant than vigilant and to automatically support anything that goes under the name of change.  And it’s not clear how valid these concerns will turn out, since the legislation hasn’t yet made it successfully off the governor’s desk. My brief involvement with the reform project last year indicated that the Senate would be much more skeptical and limiting than the House, so we will need to see if the prison population reduction provisions (e.g., drug law changes, earned credits for 85% law offenders, revocation to the intermediate facilities) even pass, much less have an impact. So, as encouraging as these efforts may be, the corks need to stay in the bottles, at least for a few years.  The questions, however, need to be asked now. [NOTE: After this post was written, the earned credits for 85% law offenders were eliminated by the Senate. The Senate’s version of the bill has been approved by the House and sent to Governor Fallin.] 

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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