Criminal justice reform advocates should be encouraged – though not overjoyed – at the progress made on justice reform in Oklahoma’s 2018 legislative session. Even in their amended forms, new laws that open up our broken parole process, reduce sentences for many nonviolent crimes, and recalibrate our supervision practices will significantly slow growth in our prison population.

At her press conference to sign those measures, Gov. Fallin also announced that the FY 2019 budget includes funding critical to making justice reform work, including an additional $11 million to the Department of Corrections, $5 million to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and $1.1 million for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, among several other appropriations.

It’s heartening to see lawmakers recognize that improving our justice system will require targeted investments in alternatives to incarceration. It’s also a good reminder that although reducing incarceration saves the state money in the long run, taking the first steps towards that goal requires some upfront spending, and the state must be in good enough financial shape to make those investments. That’s a position that Oklahoma is finally in, thanks to the historic passage of new revenues this year. But if we don’t continue to make progress to reduce incarceration each year, we’ll fail to realize the promised savings that have driven much of the reform debate.

The FY 2019 budget makes smart investments in justice programs

This year, DOC received a big bump in appropriations, from $486 million in FY 2018 to about $517 million this year. Nearly $5 million of that is directed to implementing a new offender management system. It’s almost unbelievable in this day and age, but Oklahoma’s current offender management system – which tracks the location and release dates of inmates – is kept by hand, meaning that release dates were calculated with pen and paper. Persistent budget shortfalls have caused many agencies, including DOC, to fall far behind the times.

The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services received new funding as well, rising by about $9 million to an appropriation of $337 million in FY 2019. This is a good start as the state attempts to reach the 2 out of 3 Oklahomans who need these services but don’t receive them. Research shows that every dollar invested in drug treatment saves even more on crime reduction; legislators should keep this in mind as they look for ways to reduce incarceration without jeopardizing public safety.

Gov. Fallin also announced increases of $1 million to support drug courts; $1.1 million to the chronically underfunded Oklahoma Indigent Defense System; and $1 million to the District Attorneys Council, as well as $500,000 to Women In Recovery as part of a pay-for-success prison diversion program.

Oklahoma will save money by investing in rehabilitation – eventually

All of this spending is aimed at reducing our dependence on incarceration by providing alternatives that keep people in their communities, working and providing for their families while remaining accountable for their actions. Advocates for justice reform often point out that it’s much cheaper to provide treatment for a person in the community than it is to house and feed them in a prison.

However, it’s important to recognize that it’ll be a while before we can significantly reduce our spending on prisons. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has long been in dire financial straits. A growing prison population and falling appropriations from the Legislature have put enormous strain on the system. As a result, DOC’s structures are crumbling, and each year for the past decade, increasingly higher numbers of inmates have been supervised by fewer and fewer employees.

“Even if Oklahoma’s prison population declines significantly in the coming years as projected, we should not expect our corrections budget to shrink at the same time… There’s simply too much ground to be made up after decades of over-incarceration and funding cuts.”

How bad is DOC’s financial situation? Compare it to Nebraska’s, where prison overcrowding has kept the possibility of a federal intervention around for years. Oklahoma has over five times as many inmates in its system as Nebraska (about 27,000 here vs. 5,300 there in FY 2016), but spends less than double what Nebraska spends on its corrections system ($486 million here vs. $267 million there in FY 2018).

To achieve even a bare-minimum standard of funding in our justice system, Oklahoma must continue to increase investments in prison-based rehabilitation services, as well as diversion programs for people involved in the court system and treatment services for those who aren’t. Even if Oklahoma’s prison population declines significantly in the coming years as projected, we should not expect our corrections budget to shrink at the same time. To the contrary, we should continue pushing for increased funding to rehabilitative programs in and out of prison. There’s simply too much ground to be made up after decades of over-incarceration and funding cuts.

Justice reform is a long road

The states that have had the most success in reducing their prison populations have accomplished it not by one herculean effort in a single legislative session, but by returning, year after year, to push further in reforming in every part of the justice system. Perhaps the best example of this is Georgia, where Republican Governor Nathan Deal has led a sustained push for justice reform since taking office. Starting in 2011, the state reduced mandatory minimums, increased education opportunities for inmates, invested in rehabilitation programs, and reinvented its juvenile justice system. Each year, the Legislature returned and passed more reforms. The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, created in 2013 to steer the state’s efforts, reported that prison admissions in 2017 had dropped to their lowest point since 2002. Fewer African-Americans were admitted in 2017 than in any year since 1987.

Oklahoma must follow the same path of persistent reform if we want to call justice reform a success. Making key investments in a relatively good budget year is a start; pressing those gains further in the years to come is essential to saving money and improving public safety in the long run.