No Excuse for Oklahoma Policymakers not to Pursue Corrections Reform (The Oklahoman)

By The Oklahoman Editorial Board

THE Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and Oklahoma Policy Institute are serious, reputable think tanks with vastly different worldviews. The former champions a conservative, free-market approach to government. It favors tax cuts. OK Policy generally sees government spending and taxation as the solution, not the problem, to issues facing the state.

Yet these two groups have found common ground on the need for corrections reform in Oklahoma. In op-eds published in this newspaper Sunday, OK Policy’s executive director and OCPA’s executive vice president each called on leaders to do something different in this area.

Jonathan Small with OCPA urged policymakers to stop locking away nonviolent offenders and instead work “to help those struggling with substance abuse, mental health challenges and financial woes to pursue empowerment and improvement through restorative justice and other reforms.”

David Blatt with OK Policy urged Gov. Mary Fallin to act on a report this summer that offers a way forward with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a bill Fallin signed into law in 2012 but which has never been fully embraced by the governor or funded by the Legislature. Fallin “should take the report’s recommendations to heart and find partners in the Legislature willing to show the same leadership,” Blatt wrote.

Both groups are on target, and it appears movement in the right direction is possible. A spokesman for Fallin confirms that the governor’s office recently met with officials from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, an agency that helps states implement justice reinvestment programs.

Oklahoma’s JRI was designed to slow the state’s prison population growth rate and reduce recidivism rates. JRI called for supervision for all inmates leaving prison, establishing facilities where inmates who violate their probation can get treatment for addictions or mental health issues instead of being returned to prison, and creating a grant program to assist law enforcement agencies.

This summer, Fallin’s office tasked a Harvard University graduate student with reviewing JRI. He offered a number of suggestions, including showing the state’s commitment to the entire JRI process and broader reform, and giving the Department of Corrections the funds needed to provide intensive help for offenders identified as needing mental health or substance abuse treatment.

One other suggestion was to develop proper messaging to help sell the public on the benefits of reform, and to find champions at the Legislature.

The latter shouldn’t be too difficult. State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, has made corrections policy his focus during his first two years at the Legislature and will continue to do so. Cleveland proposed a modest reform bill in 2014 that was waylaid by the same tactic that has buried others — that it was “soft on crime.” Lawmakers will need to reject such claims in the future if reform is going to happen.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, is another potential ally, and a powerful one. In 2012, he said prison staffing levels were “life-and-death situations” that merited serious attention, and he has said the state needs to consider alternatives to incarceration.

“Obviously, what we have been doing in Oklahoma isn’t working,” Hickman recently told The Oklahoman’s Graham Lee Brewer. The numbers back him up — the offender population has grown steadily through the years, recently eclipsing 28,000, but the violent crime rate has dropped only slightly.

Cleveland put it well: “We’ve got to get out of this Republican and Democratic way of thinking and focus on what is right.” The sooner, the better.

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