OK PolicyCast Episode 9 Transcript

Listen to this episode here.

It’s September 26, 2014, and this is the OK PolicyCast from Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Each week we bring you the most important news about Oklahoma, and what it means.

I’m Gene Perry.

And I’m Kara Joy McKee.

This week we’ll talk about a new report from Governor Fallin’s office that may lay out a path forward for Oklahoma to reform our criminal justice system and reduce incarceration.

G: The State Board of Education chose to delay a decision to rehire testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill for 2014 winter testing. The company had previously been fired following two consecutive years of statewide disruptions during testing. The state Department of Education had asked the board to approve a no-bid contract with CTB/McGraw-Hill because they said no other company was willing to do it.

KJ: Education Department chief of staff Joel Robison told the Tulsa World, “No one in this building is happy. This was not our first choice. We tried to make it abundantly clear how frustrated we have been working with McGraw-Hill the past couple of years. This is not an ongoing relationship here. This is a short-term, one-cycle testing contract.”

G: Explaining the education board’s decision to delay approval of a contract, board member Lee Baxter said, “I’m not going to vote to give another $3 million to a failed vendor. When you take your car into the same guy twice and he screws it up both times, you go somewhere else. You don’t take it back to him and let him screw it up a third time.”

KJ: In other education news, State superintendent Janet Barresi has stirred another controversy for creating a new assistant state superintendent position with just three months left in office and hiring the husband of a top Education Department official to fill it. Barresi hired Larry Birney, a career law enforcement official with no prior experience in education, to be assistant state superintendent of accreditation and compliance, tasked with investigating schools for not meeting state mandates. The department never advertised the position to consider other applicants.

KJ: Lynn Jones, a longtime regional accreditation officer who was promoted last year to executive director of accreditation, resigned over the hiring. Birney would have been her new supervisor.

G: State Rep. Jason Smalley, a Republican from Stroud, called for Barresi’s resignation in response. He told the Tulsa World, “I have personally worked with Lynn; she is extremely knowledgeable and gifted in what she does. She has an abundance of knowledge and was an amazing resource to myself and all of the schools she served. It seems to me that we would want to keep our best and brightest close to us to allow a less of a learning curve come November when a new leader takes office. To replace someone and create a new position with only six weeks left is inexcusable and shows that the State Department of Education, a bureaucratic monster, is out of control.”

G: Also calling for Barresi’s resignation was Board of Education member Lee Baxter and the Tulsa World editorial board.

KJ: The race for Oklahoma’s next governor is picking up steam on the airwaves. With about six weeks left before the general election, State Rep. Joe Dorman and Gov. Mary Fallin have launched new TV ads for their campaigns. Representative Dorman’s ad criticizes Governor Fallin’s early support for Common Core standards and her veto of three bills he said were supportive of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Fallin’s latest ad touts her fight against the Affordable Care Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.

G: Dorman told The Oklahoman that while there are portions of the Affordable Care Act he doesn’t agree with, he is in favor of accepting federal money to expand Medicaid, because it would bring federal taxes already paid by Oklahomans back to the state.

G: The Republican Governor’s Association is spending $200,000 dollar on ads supporting Mary Fallin’s campaign that attempt to tie Joe Dorman to President Obama.

KJ: Also in the news this week, the Okmulgee County jail director said extreme overcrowding was behind a recent jail riot that caused $10,000 dollars in damage and sent one inmate to the hospital. The jail is currently housing more than double the 150 inmates it was designed for.

KJ: A woman whose fiancé was in the Okmulgee County jail for a parole violation told News On 6, “There’s supposed to be two per cell but there’s, like you know, five or six in a cell. People are sleeping under beds and in walkways; some aren’t on mats but on the floor.”

G: In a letter to Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton, the ACLU of Oklahoma said they’ve seen a scary increase in the number and severity of complaints they are receiving from inmates at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center. The LARC has seen a surge in inmates as the state has recently taken many offenders who were backed up in county jails. The letter states, “As a whole, it appears inmates are spending far longer in LARC than usual, in some cases upwards of three months, all without many basic provisions available to inmates once they “pull yard,” such as proper toiletries and even underwear. It also appears that despite the predictability of this surge, basic preparations such as ensuring the availability of sufficient food, supplies, and staff, were never made. These conditions, where combined with extreme understaffing, including reports of understaffed (and at times completely unstaffed) security posts, pose substantial risks of injury or death to both inmates and Department of Corrections staff.”

KJ: Sean Wallace, the director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, wrote that in the Tulsa World that a federal takeover of Oklahoma prisons may be the last hope for corrections officers.

G: On other news, drought conditions are still prevailing in much of the state as summer ends. Oklahoma farmers have begun to plant winter wheat earlier than normal this year, hoping to use what little moisture remains in the soil. The City of Cleveland in Pawnee County is facing a potential water emergency after a drought has caused a lake that is the town’s only water source to drop 11 feet below normal.

KJ: About 13.6 percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought is especially bad in southwest Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s state climatologist Gary McManus has said that one of the expected effects of climate change in the state is droughts of increasing frequency and severity.




Now for our numbers of the week.

G: The first number is 18.3 percent. That’s the poverty rate for women in Oklahoma in 2013, which is 1.5 percentage points higher than poverty for the state as a whole. Another group with higher than average poverty is Native Americans. 22.9 percent of Oklahoma Native Americans lived in poverty in 2013, 6.1 percentage points higher than the state overall.

KJ: Another number this week is 28 percent. That’s the percentage of Oklahoma nursing homes with “severe deficiencies,” defined as violations of state or federal law that resulted in resident injury, abuse, neglect or death. More than 1 out of every 4 nursing homes in the state has been cited for severe deficiencies.

G: $2.55 million dollars. That’s how much Oklahoma put in a fund to reimburse uncompensated care at community health centers this year — less than one-third of what they said they will need, and even less than the $3.12 million dollars in fiscal year 2014 funding that ran out before half the year was over.

KJ: Oklahoma has steadily cut uncompensated care funding for community health centers since 2009, and now the centers say they are facing dire situations and may have to close down. These are among the very few places that low-income Oklahomans can get care regardless of ability to pay.

G: John Silva, the CEO of Morton Comprehensive Health Systems, said the state’s community health centers are in survival mode, struggling to preserve their commitment to medically underserved populations while staying in business. He said, “If this continues for 24 months, I doubt you’ll see [any of us] left standing.”

KJ: Our last number this week is 2,300. That’s the number of unintentional injury deaths in Oklahoma in 2012, 1 out of every 16 deaths in the state that year. Over the past decade, deaths due to unintentional poisonings have more than tripled, with the vast majority related to abuse of prescription painkillers.


KJ: Two years ago, hopes were high that Oklahoma was finally taking a different approach to criminal justice, away from policies that had given us some of the highest levels of incarceration in the world without doing much to reduce crime and recidivism. Ideas                                                                                                                                     or reform came through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which was spearheaded by former Speaker of the House Kris Steele.

KJ: The effort culminated in a major reform bill passed in 2012. Unfortunately, implementation of those reforms fell apart after Speaker Steele was term-limited out of the Legislature, and other state leaders did not take on the cause.

KJ: However, a recent development may signal that Governor Fallin is becoming more supportive of reform. Governor Fallin’s office has released a new report laying out a path forward for criminal justice policies in the state.

KJ: Gene recently wrote about this report for the OK Policy Blog.

KJ: So Gene, who’s behind this new report?



G: So, it was written by a gentleman names Adam Luck, and he was recruited by Governor Fallin who actually applied to this program with the School of Government at Harvard University to bring in a research fellow who would come and do a report on a particular issue in the state.

KJ: Sounds credible

G: Yeah, and he was recruited with this application in which Governor Fallin said specifically that they want someone to come here and examine how Oklahoma can move forward with the justice reinvestment law.  This is coming after some controversy that Governor Fallin not cooperating with the committee that had been put together to implement the law and some signs that she viewed it as too soft on crime and wasn’t going to cooperate.  This is a pretty good sign that her administration is at least doing something to say ‘no, we actually need to do this, we need to move forward.’  The way that Adam Luck put this report together was by doing interviews with people all over the state who involved in this.  It sounds like he was given a lot of access, and was able to speak to the governor’s office, folks in the legislature, as well as people in the State Department of Corrections and Mental Health, attorney generals offices, as well as the main non-profits that are involved in re-integration and alternatives to incarceration.  Based on that, he came up with some recommendations.

KJ: So, he’s an expert and he went around Oklahoma talking to the people who are here, boots on the ground, who are doing things about it, and making decisions about it.

G: He’s a graduate student who didn’t have prior background in criminal justice issues, so he’s a smart guy, but he didn’t bring a lot of prior training into this.  However, it does seem like he got a lot of good information for the people who really know what’s going on. 

KJ: OK, so what were the findings?

G: He broke down his recommendation into four areas.  The first is pretty obvious; he recommends implementing the law that we already passed.  There are a few areas where that implementation has fallen significantly short.  One big focus of the justice reinvestment law was to create these intermediate revocation facilities.  Revocation facilities is a technical term that essentially means having a place for offenders that have been released on probation or parole and have done something to get in trouble.  That doesn’t mean committing a crime- in fact, most of the time, it’s some type of technical offense, such as missing a meeting with their parole officer, or associating with people that person was not supposed to be associating with.   They are offenses that would not be a crime or reasons to send you back to prison, unless you already had the probation restrictions on you.  For these offenders, the law called for creating this intermediate facility that wasn’t prison, and allowed them to stay in the community and allow them to continue their employment, as well as have many opportunities for substance abuse treatments, mental health treatment, etc.  Failing a drug test is another way to violate and fail their probation or parole.

KJ: It sounds like that might give them opportunity to transition into a new lifestyle

G: Yes, that was the idea.  But unfortunately, we made it the law that we have to provide these intermediate revocation facilities, but then it was mostly ignored by the criminal justice system.  The Tulsa World reported back in March that only 19 men and 12 women had been sentenced to intermediate sanctions since the law took effect.  This is less than 2% of the more than 1,000 men sent to prison for technical violations of their probation or parole.

KJ: What happened to the rest of them?  Were they just sent to prison?

G: Yeah, just sent to prison.  Even though we have this requirement that says not to send them to prison, and instead send them to intermediate revocation facilities, that does not happen.  Even worse, with the prison overcrowding, some of these beds haven’t been created in prison for those being sent back.  Another recommendation in this report was that we create designated beds specifically for this, so it’s not just taken over by the ordinary prison population.  The recommendation also included taking over the mental health and substance abuse treatments that is intended to occur during rehabilitation.

KJ:  Right, I know we have a big issue with people who are sometimes criminals also being addicted, also having mental health issues, and so being able to separate out those populations, and allow people to get the treatment that would help them the most; it seems like it’s very important.

G: It’s hugely important.  It really is the number one driver of Oklahoma’s sky high incarceration rates.  Our prisons systems have become our new mental health facilities, our new substance abuse facilities, and they’re playing this role that would be much less expensive and more effective if they were to be done by places actually designed to be treating those issues.  Another area that Luck identified as being the law, but not being done currently was that all offenders, as part of their sentence, is to serve at least 9 months under probationary supervision, so they are not just put out on the street with no more contact from the justice system.  But rather, are given this probation term so they have someone monitoring them, maybe intervening if it looks like they are at risk to commit a crime again, showing them where to get resources for job training, or finding affordable housing, or whatever they may need to reintegrate themselves back into the community.  However, many judges after the passage of the law were unaware that they were supposed to be doing that.  Last year, the Department of Corrections reported that only 9 offenders had the requirement placed on them, out of 1621 who were eligible.  It was essentially a non-existent use of this part of the law, for whatever reason.

KJ: Whose responsibility was it to let the judges know that this is not the law?

G: There was a committee that tried to come together and coordinate between the various agencies and people involved.

KJ: Did you say that Governor Fallin was not very supportive of that committee?

G: That committee basically fell apart after a conflict with Governor Fallin.  It had been chaired by House Speaker Chris Steel who resigned from the committee when they had a disagreement over several things, and eventually Governor Fallin said she was not applying for any money to fund this work.  That is actually the second area of recommendations that Adam Luck came out with, which is that we need to finish this justice reinvestment process.  Justice Reinvestment is a partnership with the Pew Center who came in and did a whole lot of research and came up with these recommendations and how it has worked in other states is that they do the research, and the recommendations, and pass a bill.  All that happened in Oklahoma.  Then, the follow up is that they have a task force that over sees and coordinates the work.  One can also get the funds from the Bureau of Justice Assistance from the Federal Government, as long as you have this task force.  First, Governor Fallin decided that we were not going to apply for these funds, and then the task force dissolved, and there was some discussion at the Legislature about recreating it, but it hasn’t come back together.  Luck recommends that Oklahoma should reconvene the steering committee, this time with full support for Governor Fallin and accept the funding.  Usually when Oklahoma doesn’t accept federal funding, we say it’s because we don’t like the strings that come attached to it.  However, this time the only string attached is literally having a task force to implement these recommendations that we have already accepted and passed, so there doesn’t seem like a good reason to not accept these funds this time.

KJ: It seems like a win-win to make the task force and receive the funds.

G: Yes it does.  Another area where we didn’t fully implement the recommendations that came out of justice reinvestment is the part of the law that was stripped early in the process that would allow offenders who are required to serve 85% of their sentences.  That means in Oklahoma, people who have more serious crimes, usually violent crimes, have to serve 85% of their sentence. The reform was that they would have to have good time during that 85%.  They can’t get out earlier than that 85% of time, the goof time will apply after the 85% and become eligible for parole, based on their behavior.

KJ: Does that mean they have to serve 85%, but they are not guaranteed to get out right after completing 85% of their time?

G: Yes, they can become eligible for probation or parole after 85%, but for other inmates, you can get an earlier probation/parole for good behavior in prison.  That’s actually important tool for corrections officers, because inmates know if they disobey, or do something that creates a dangerous situation, it means that they will be in prison longer.  For the most violent and serious offenders, corrections officers don’t have the ability to offer them anything because they know nothing is going to matter until they are passed that 85%.  That’s why the original law was stripped in justice reinvestment and was reintroduced last year, and was termed Corrections Officer Safety Law because it was presented as a tool for officers to use to make inmates behave as well as protect their own safety.  This was actually endorsed by the district attorney’s council, which typically is the most aggressive and tough on crime lobbying group at the capital.  It was also, of course, endorsed by corrections officers who see it as very important to protect their own safety.  But, it was still voted down again last year after someone labeled it soft on crime.

KJ: Well that’s just ridiculous.  I mean, we need to protect these criminal justice officers.  We are already understaffing these prisons, and they are now in a dangerous situation.  This bill doesn’t mean that anyone is getting out before they serve 85% of their term, is that correct?

G: Yes.  As the headlines we discussed earlier in today’s podcast, make very clear that there are scary situations going on in prisons today, and correction officers have already been assaulted and are facing some bad things.  Moving onto the third set of recommendations that were in this report- it talked about building on the reforms.  So working on implementing what has been passed in the justice reinvestment, as well as further things, since it’s not the end of the process since this issue is deep rooted in Oklahoma’s history.  It’s going to take more reforms and change in order to see changes in incarceration rates and an improvement in public safety by reducing the number of people going back to prison.

KJ: That’s recidivism, right?

G: Yes.  Some of the other reforms are that Oklahoma needs to invest in programs that help offenders find and keep employment, transportation and housing.  He identified a few models of what they could look like.  Within the state there’s the community corrections division at the Department of Corrections, there’s the education and employment ministry, which is a nonprofit headed by former speaker Chris Steel.  For nonprofits, the state can take advantage of a law that allows for pay for success contracts, in which the state only pays when certain outcomes of recidivism happen.  Essentially, they make a contract and go to a private investor and say ‘you invest $2 million in this program, and we’ll pay that back to you if it shows these specific success metrics of someone not committing another crime or going back to prison, or someone who would have gone to prison, but instead went to this program and got treatment and are no longer needing to go to prison.

KJ: These sounds like some potentially very successful reforms to implement.  We’ve got a lot of good recommendations for going forward, but the state hasn’t had a good track record so far. It seems like every time we have good idea like this that can help these families, parents that are incarcerated, and the kids who are affected by the incarceration of parents, that some legislator will say that these legislations are not tough on crime.  What are the chances that these reforms will actually happen this time?

G: That’s a good question.  That’s actually the fourth set of recommendation in Adam Luck’s report.  He calls it “improving the reforms process,” which is a polite way of saying we need to fix the politics that got us into this mess in the first place.  Luck recommends identifying key legislative leaders that can build support and form a coordinated team, building public support though good messaging and following that up with clear training and enforcement among judges and prosecutors and anyone else who needs to implement it.  Clearly, for this to be successful, that’s what would need to happen.  The big question is, are the people with power in Oklahoma going to go along with this and actually complete reforms and support them?  That’s a huge unanswered question, what really drives it home for me is the fact we had this report this year, in 2012 we had the original justice reinvestment study, in 2008 there were recommendations from the Oklahoma Academy About Town Hall, in 2007 there was a Department of Corrections audit performed by the private firm NGT. In 2004 there was a special task force on incarcerated women.  From 2003-2008 lawmakers received annual reports of recommendations from the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission.  Reading back through these reports, going all the way back for more than a decade, they are all saying a lot of the same things.  Develop alternative to incarceration; for substance abuse, possession; allow good time credits; remove barriers to employment for ex felons; create intermediate sanctions for parole violators; reduce sentences for non-violent crimes.  We’ve been hearing this over and over and over again, and the problem isn’t that we didn’t know what to do- the problem is that we have been unwilling to do it.

KJ: Perhaps it’s also because we’ve continued to elect legislators who use tough on crime as a buzzword, instead of actually being smart on crime, and separating violent and non violent offenders, and adopting proper treatment programs and properly funding our prisoners and also our prison staff.

G: It’s been a mentality amongst legislators, and it’s also been a mentality among district attorneys in the state, prosecutors, and the mentality of the population as a whole, or at least that’s what the elected officials seem to be operating on.  What needs to be done is well documented, and hopefully with Governor Fallin calling for this report, it implies some interest in changing her tone on it.

KJ: That’s hopeful

G: Yeah, I’m hopeful that since our situation in our prison system is so dire that we really need to do something, that is we don’t, we’re going to have more people die.  It’s happened before where the federal government has come in and taken control of our prison systems because we’re not being responsible nor running it effectively.  We don’t want that in Oklahoma, and it would be embarrassing and expensive for our state.  We have an obligation to do this right, and so hopefully this is a sign that something’s going to change.

KJ: I hope so.  Thank you for your analysis and your report, Gene.

G: Thank you.


KJ: For our closing good news this week, Oklahoma higher education leaders announced that over the past 2 years the state has increased the number of college degrees and certificates it awards each year by more than 6,500. That’s more than double the state’s goal in the Complete College America challenge, which aims to increase the number of degrees and certificates awarded annually to 50,900 by 2023.

KJ: The interim director of Oklahoma CareerTech Marcie Mack said in a news release, “If Oklahoma’s economy is to continue to grow, it is critical that we continue empowering our students and instructors to close the skills gap through high-quality workforce education.”

KJ: We hope you enjoyed our stories this week.  You can find more about each of these stories at okpolicy.org.  Thanks for listening, and have a great week


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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