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Prison reform proves difficult for Oklahoma politicians

Photo by Thinkstock
Photo by Thinkstock

Editor's Note: This story is the second of a two-part series based on reporting by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, and The Associated Press. Following up on Open Records requests made more than 14 months ago, reporters spent the last month reviewing 8,000 pages of documents obtained from Gov. Mary Fallin's office. Sunday's story looked at the status of the state Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and today, experts discuss whether it would be proper to overhaul Oklahoma's criminal code to reduce costs.

When Republican Ged Wright was first elected to the Oklahoma Senate in the 1980s, he thought the 8,000 inmates and $100 million annual price tag for the state's prison system were too much.

Fast-forwarding 25 years over a career that also included stints as a member of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission and the Board of Corrections, Wright has seen Oklahoma's prison population explode to nearly 27,000 inmates and the state's corrections budget approach a half-billion dollars each year.

Oklahoma legislators in 2012 passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, intended to trim the state's costs through a leaner Department of Corrections, while still providing critical services to inmates. The JRI-related documents obtained from Gov. Mary Fallin revealed her administration at times undermined the initiative, much of which remains undone or unfunded.

But even if all the JRI initiatives had been fully implemented, the package of reforms was only designed to curb inmate growth, not stop it. Many contend any real progress on inmate growth won't be achieved without a complete overhaul of the state's harsh criminal sentencing codes, a major political challenge in a conservative state with a tough-on-crime reputation that predates statehood.

Of the state's $7.1 billion budget this year, the Department of Corrections consumed more than $460 million, an amount most experts say is woefully inadequate to run crumbling prisons bursting at the seams with mostly nonviolent offenders.

Prison guards, whose pay starts at $11.83 per hour, work mandatory 60-hour work weeks at about half of the state's 17 prisons, where staffing ratios of officers to offenders are among the worst in the nation and veteran guards say morale is at an all-time low.

“Nobody's old enough in the Legislature, practically, to remember McAlester in the early 1970s,” Wright said, referring to a three-day prison riot at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in the summer of 1973 that left three inmates dead, more than 20 guards and inmates injured and a dozen buildings burned to the ground. “We've got the potential for that again.

“There's a train wreck coming around the corner.”

Prison officials have been warning the Legislature and elected leaders in Oklahoma for the past two decades about a growing crisis in the state's prison system, but little has been done to stem the increasing tide of inmates.

Pushed hard by former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, a soft-spoken minister, the JRI initiative was designed to improve public safety in part by diverting some nonviolent offenders from prison through treatment and monitoring, freeing up funding for targeted policing, and eventually saving the state millions.

But some of the significant reforms in the package were gutted in the Legislature, and emails among Fallin's top aides suggest enthusiasm from the governor's office quickly waned as Steele's term in the Legislature neared an end.

Fallin's General Counsel Steve Mullins, the governor's lead policy adviser on corrections, maintains Fallin fully supports the new law and its implementation, as well as additional reforms aimed at improving the state's correctional system.

“The governor cares a lot about this issue,” Mullins said. “We're locking up an awful lot of people in Oklahoma, and we're not getting good results.

“It's a broken system.”

But efforts to change the system or reduce harsh criminal penalties in Oklahoma, like many other states, have faced bitter resistance over the years from elected officials concerned about being labeled soft on crime during their next election or amid opposition from prosecutors, a powerful lobbying force.

A massive rewrite of the state's criminal code, dubbed “Truth in Sentencing,” was last attempted when Democrats controlled the Legislature in the 1990s.

Although the measure passed, it was quickly repealed as legislators feared fallout back home, said Wright, who was among a bipartisan group that helped write the law.

“Everybody was afraid of their own shadow,” Wright recalled.

Many conservative states have had success in recent years addressing skyrocketing inmate populations and increasing corrections costs.

Jay Neal, a former Republican legislator from Georgia, helped spearhead several major changes to that state's criminal justice system over the last three years that have cleared a backlog of inmates from county jails and sharply slowed prison growth.

“Georgia's been one of those lock-'em-up states for a long time. And that's the kind of politician I was when I ran,” Neal said.

“But it was a willingness to accept the data and see what was happening in the criminal justice system.”

A nationwide effort dubbed “Right on Crime” that includes a similar approach to corrections policy has been endorsed by conservative leaders like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, and could give political cover to conservative Oklahoma politicians willing to take on the issue.

“You have states like Kansas and Texas, obviously very conservative states, that have been able to do these things. There's really no reason we can't,” said Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, a JRI supporter who leads the House budget committee that oversees prison funding.

But with an election year in 2014 and the political fallout of JRI still being assessed, Hickman said it's unlikely any significant corrections reforms will be pursued this year.

And he fears that it could take a tragedy inside the walls of one of Oklahoma's prisons before lawmakers will act.

“My hope is it that it's not going to take a mother or father who tucks their children into bed at night and leaves to go to work at the local prison getting killed before we get serious about addressing this crisis in Oklahoma,” Hickman said.

“At some point, we've got to get serious about the problem.”

CONTRIBUTING: Reporters Cary Aspinwall, Barbara Hoberock, Curtis Killman and Enterprise Editor Ziva Branstetter of the World; reporter Andrew Knittle and News Director Robby Trammell of The Oklahoman, and reporter Sean Murphy of The Associated Press

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of longtime Republican legislator Ged Wright.