By Randy Ellis
Oklahoma criminal justice reform advocates are ecstatic — almost giddy.
In less than two months, a dozen separate bills crafted with the overarching goal of lowering the state’s high incarceration rate while simultaneously improving public safety have received initial favorable votes in the House or Senate and are awaiting further action.
“These bills represent the most significant progress yet on criminal justice reform in Oklahoma,” said former House Speaker Kris Steele, an outspoken advocate of the reform effort. “The governor and the Legislature are doing a fantastic job with this package of reforms. This is game-changer stuff.”
Among the reform measures are bills that would decrease punishment for low-level property crimes and nonviolent offenses, give judges greater sentencing discretion, create an administrative parole process and decrease the mandatory wait time for nonviolent offenders seeking to have their criminal records expunged. The latter is designed to improve employment prospects by reducing the stigma of being a convict.
“We’re encouraged by the momentum that we believe has been established,” said Chris Benge, Gov. Mary Fallin’s chief of staff. “Having this many bills still alive in the process is very good. I think it shows there is true, sincere interest with the Legislature in trying to find some solutions to our criminal justice matters.”
Beneath all the optimism, however, is an element of concern.
The task force and other criminal justice reformers have said that for the reforms to work as intended and for public safety to be preserved, the Legislature needs to allocate additional funds for mental health and substance abuse treatment and diversion programs.
The governor acknowledged that need in her fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. She recommended that lawmakers allocate an additional $25 million to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for criminal justice reform initiatives and approve a $50 million bond issue to renovate and expand correctional facilities to provide specific locations to treat offenders with substance abuse issues.
The Legislature, which traditionally reserves action on spending bills until late in the session, has not yet acted on those proposals.
Benge and Steele both said providing additional funds for mental health and substance abuse services is critical.
“Obviously, the funding matters,” Benge said. “We believe you do have to have the funding piece to make it work. Otherwise, we’d have the relapse of individuals who don’t have the proper supervision and it becomes a vicious cycle again.”
“Oklahoma is a smart state and we’re capable of doing this,” Steele said.
While providing additional upfront funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs is the ideal and would provide the most benefits, Steele said all is not lost if the Legislature decides it doesn’t have the money this year. He believes it would still be beneficial for lawmakers to pass the other reforms this year and provide additional funding for the treatment programs as money becomes available.
“Other states such as Georgia have enacted corrections reforms based on a pay-as-you-go model with tremendous success,” Steele said. “We have every reason to believe Oklahoma will experience similar results.”
Jenna Moll, deputy director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, has traversed the country advocating for criminal justice reform.
Moll said she repeatedly has witnessed states have success in decreasing incarceration rates while lowering crime rates by shifting money from prisons to alternative mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
It began in Texas
It all started with Texas in the middle of the last decade, she said. Faced with the prospect of spending $2 billion on new prisons, the state rejected the idea and instead spent a portion of the money it saved on mental health treatment programs and other alternatives.
Fast forward a decade,” she said. “They’ve been able to close three prisons. They’re actually looking at closing maybe one or two more this year, as well. They’ve averted all that $2 billion in prison construction costs and saved anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion more in prison operating costs. The crime rate is at its lowest since 1968.”
Dozens of states have followed the lead of Texas, she said, citing Georgia, the Carolinas, Utah, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois as examples.
Moll said there is every reason to believe that Oklahoma could realize many of the same financial benefits as Texas if it follows through with its criminal justice initiatives.
She pointed to the Oklahoma governor’s task force report that said without reforms, the state’s prison population is projected to grow by more than 7,200 inmates over the next 10 years, which would require the state to build three new prisons that would cost an additional $1.9 billion to build and operate. With the reforms, the task force indicated many of those costs can be avoided.
Moll said there would appear to be plenty of opportunity in Oklahoma to lower the incarceration rate without harming public safety because 75 percent of the people sent to prison were sentenced for nonviolent offenses.
“Oklahoma does have an incredibly high incarceration rate, so there’s quite a bit that we can do,” she said.
Moll said monitoring money saved by reducing incarceration rates and reinvesting a portion of that money on mental health and substance abuse treatment programs is key to making the reforms work.
“It’s critical,” Moll said. “In the states that have done reform that hasn’t worked, it’s because they were missing that oversight and that reinvestment. The states that have done it and it has worked well had exemplary oversight and reinvestment. So, I really think that could be make or break for Oklahoma.”