Justice reform again on state officials’ radar (The Oklahoman)

By Graham Lee Brewer

With a pending prison population report that is expected to show the state system is well over capacity, recent talks between the governor’s office and a national nonprofit have some advocates wondering: Is 2015 the year for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma?

 Spokesman for the governor’s office Alex Weintz confirmed they recently met with representatives from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit agency that helps states implement justice reinvestment programs.

The group helped the state formulate the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and in 2012 it successfully passed through the state Legislature. After initially working with the Justice Center to secure federal funding to implement JRI, Gov. Mary Fallin’s office told the nonprofit in 2013 the funds would no longer be necessary.

JRI would have redirected many nonviolent offenders to treatment programs rather than prison, as well as have created a more robust supervised parole process for offenders. However, a dedicated funding source was never put in place and members of a committee formed to implement the program clashed with the governor’s office before disbanding.

“I don’t think this is going to come to any honest observer as a flip flop,” Weintz said in an emailed response. “The governor has always said she supported JRI. She signed the bill that made it law.”

Weintz declined to comment on what the discussion will mean or if their office is in fact again asking for help garnering federal funding for JRI. He said the governor is committed to criminal justice reform but said he is unable to outline any specific policy initiatives until closer to the legislative session, which begins in February.

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the federal department that likely would provide such funding, said they cannot confirm or comment on requests for funding.


In July, the governor’s office commissioned a report on the state’s justice system. The report, compiled by Adam Luck, a Harvard graduate fellow, recommended many of the same changes outlined in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, as well as strengthening the state’s relationship with the Justice Center.

Former state House Speaker and co-author of JRI, Kris Steele, said after the committee dissolved and tensions were high he was skeptical when the state reached out to him to participate in Luck’s study.

“I sort of had my guard up, I mean, I’ll be honest with you,” Steele said.

Steele said he was surprised, but the report showed him Fallin was serious about reform.

The fact that the state locks up more people per capita than almost any other place in the country means more and more Oklahomans are directly affected by the issue, said Steele. But, despite that, the political climate has become so focused on being “tough on crime” it is difficult to implement change.

“The real test is going to be if she tries to test the water and move forward, what happens when somebody stands up and says ‘Governor Fallin is being soft on crime,’” Steele said.

Gene Perry, policy director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said while justice reform has not traditionally been an easy sell to Oklahoma lawmakers, a growing number are beginning to show support.

“I think that those aspects of Legislature are still going to be there, but there’s clearly significant, and I think growing, opinion among even conservative legislators that Oklahoma’s current criminal justice approach is just unsustainable,” Perry said. “We can’t afford it, and it’s not working.”

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, a longtime proponent of corrections reform, told The Oklahoman he looks forward to making the justice system smarter and more effective.

“Obviously, what we have been doing in Oklahoma isn’t working,” Hickman said. “We are locking up more and more people, but we are not seeing an impact on our crime rates.”

Regardless of whether the state receives federal funding with the help of the Justice Center, those dollars likely would only go toward training prosecutors, members of law enforcement, and mental health and corrections workers on how to work together and implement JRI. The initiative itself would cost several millions of dollars per year. That means starting the program would be much easier with the support of the state Legislature.

“I think there’s definitely interest in the House, a lot more than I’ve seen in the last two years,” said Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville. “Everybody is realizing what we’re doing is not working.”

Cleveland, who failed to push a bill through the House last session that would have allowed certain inmates to become eligible for good behavior credits while incarcerated, said he is seeing more support from lawmakers for smarter sentencing and corrections reform.

Cleveland said a new form of that failed bill, which was inspired by language in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, is even now being backed by the District Attorneys Council. He said that was a positive sign for him that others are starting to recognize criminal justice reform is not a partisan issue.

“I’m serious when I say this: we’ve got to get out of this Republican and Democrat way of thinking and focus on what is right,” Cleveland said.



Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

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