Oklahoma ‘one lawsuit away’ from a federal takeover (Steve Lewis Capitol Updates)

Photo by Keith Allison.
Photo by Keith Allison.

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman spoke to the Tulsa Republican Club at noon last Friday and told them Oklahoma is “one lawsuit away” from a federal takeover of its prison system.  Hickman reported that Oklahoma prisons are at 116 percent of capacity but are staffed at 60 percent “of where they should be.”  Speaker Hickman told the audience that “as Republicans, we talk a lot about not wanting the federal government coming in and telling us how to do our business.  If we don’t address this ourselves we are one lawsuit away, one federal judge, one federal court away from someone other than the people you elect deciding how you operate corrections.”

It remains to be seen if the Speaker and Governor Fallin are on the same page.  In 2012, as Speaker Pro Tempore, Hickman supported the effort of former Speaker Kris Steele to pass prison reforms designed to provide better treatment programs, require supervision of inmates after they are released and provide sanctions for parole violators who had not committed a new crime short of returning them to prison.  After being watered down, the bill, known as the Justice Reinvestment Act, passed but Governor Fallin turned down federal funding available for implementation.

Earlier in the week, the governor formed a special committee to help steer reforms to deal with nonviolent offenders with substance abuse problems and mental health issues.  The committee will include the governor, the attorney general, the Speaker, the Senate President Pro tempore, the Department of Corrections Director and the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, or their designees.  Ironically, two weeks before the beginning of this legislative session she charged the committee with making its report on December 31, 2016, which means the recommendations would not be available until the 2017 legislative session.  

This is a crisis that has been building for several years as the state has failed to fund corrections adequately while increasing criminal penalties causing the prisons to be overcrowded and understaffed.  The funding for many if not most of the mental health and substance abuse treatment programs that used to be available to inmates has been eliminated along with education and job training programs.

To prevent a crisis, beginning in the early 1990s the legislature created the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center and the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission.  Their job was to track and analyze the criminal laws the state was passing, report the cost and effect and make corrections policy recommendations to the legislature and governor.  But when they kept pointing out the problems being created the legislature responded by eliminating the sentencing commission and transferring the statistical duties only of the Criminal Justice Resource Center to the OSBI.  Most of the reforms passed in the Justice Re-investment Act had been recommended by the Sentencing Commission and the Criminal Justice Resource Center years earlier.  The Speaker’s “one lawsuit away” prediction may be correct.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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