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Oklahoma prison reform loses favor, emails show

Photo by Thinkstock
Photo by Thinkstock

Editor's Note: This story is the first 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. This story will look at the status of the state Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and on Monday, experts will discuss whether it would be proper to overhaul Oklahoma's criminal code to reduce costs.

It took less than a year for Oklahoma's package of prison reform laws to go from political darling to albatross.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative was touted in 2012 as a way for Oklahoma to reduce its prison population, help inmates with health or mental problems, and save money on future spending within the Corrections Department.

But within months, Gov. Mary Fallin's office held meetings without key players and also took a pass on federal money that could have been used to fund key parts of the law.

Emails obtained by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, and The Associated Press show that a Fallin aide expressed concern that President Barack Obama favored prison reform, too. The governor's chief of staff wrote in reply: “Lovely.”

Now that two of the reform's biggest advocates — former House Speaker Kris Steele and former Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones — are no longer in office, questions remain regarding where the law stands and what reforms, if any, are on track.

Oklahoma remains No. 1 in per capita incarceration of female inmates and No. 4 in male incarceration rates. The state is running out of space and money to house and staff its packed prison population.

According to the Council of State Governments report that initially examined how the reforms would benefit Oklahoma, Oklahoma's prison population outpaced the state's overall population growth from 2000 to 2010, while corrections appropriations rose more 30 percent over the decade.

Thousands of pages of emails recently released by Fallin's administration, many months after they were originally requested by multiple news organizations, shed light on potential reasons the governor's office dropped prison reform efforts in 2013 like a hot potato.

“My thought is why further tie ourselves to liberal corrections reforms groups?” Chief of Staff Denise Northrup wrote in a discussion about whether Oklahoma should participate in a joint European-American prison project.

Reporters from the three media outlets found some Fallin staff members also emailed among themselves a Sooner Tea Party newsletter that derides JRI as “soft on crime.” Her staff members also shared a news story including remarks that Fallin's biggest fear in 2014 would be a challenge from the right.

Fallin is up for re-election this year. Tea party favorite Randy Brogdon announced Christmas Day he would challenge Fallin in June's GOP primary.

General Counsel Steve Mullins, who said he serves as the governor's lead policy adviser on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, maintains Fallin is fully supportive of the law and it is being implemented.

But several key provisions remain unfunded. The working group that had been charged with seeing the law through was largely dismantled after the two chairmen resigned out of frustration. The group hasn't met since early 2012.

And in an email shortly before the working group imploded, Mullins recommended a strategy of trying to sell a decision to turn down federal funds as a demonstration of fiscal thrift.

“I think this is the time we cut our losses,” Mullins states in the email in February 2013 to Assistant General Counsel Rebecca Frazier and Northrup, a longtime Fallin adviser.

Politics over policy?

Championed by Steele, a Republican from Shawnee, the law requires mandatory supervision for felons released from prison who were sentenced after the law took effect in 2012.

It created intermediary facilities for those who violate drug court regulations or conditions of probation and parole and required mental health and drug risk screenings for offenders.

The law also created a grant program controlled by the Attorney General's office for local law enforcement agencies to reduce violent crime.

But even that portion of the law isn't being carried out as originally intended, Steele said in an interview.

Fallin's fiscal year 2014 executive budget contained standstill funding for the Department of Corrections overall and didn't fund many of the reforms, including hiring additional probation and parole officers to lighten current staff's maxed-out caseloads.

“Her staff is much more concerned about the politics than the policy,” Steele said. “In order to get elected in Oklahoma you have to be quote-on-quote ‘tough on crime.'”

Steele said based on his conversations with her, Fallin initially was supportive of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. He believes it was Fallin's staff — chiefly Mullins and Northrup — who decided to change directions.

“In my personal experiences, when we were working on the law, I would personally call the governor on her cellphone and visit with her about the merits of it,” he said. “When I would explain the details and the rationale for working on meaningful justice reform, she would agree with me.”

Often, their conversations would take place outside business hours when her staff was not present, he said.

“Her staff would have changed her positions from the time we talked in the evening to the next morning,” Steele said.

From the start, Steele said, Fallin's staff “were anything but supportive” of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

The emails show a clear concern by Fallin's staff about Steele communicating with the governor directly regarding the law, monitoring when he called her and a general dismay over his continued championing of the law.

Regarding a media request for an interview on where the reforms stood, Fallin's spokesman Alex Weintz states in an email to other staffers: “I think it's really important that we have someone representing our side of the story or the whole thing will be about Kris Steele.”

Steele was leaving office due to term limits after the measure was passed and signed. He believes he was viewed by Fallin's staff as a lame duck with decreasing political clout.

In November 2012, the emails among Fallin's staff discuss meeting with newly elected House Speaker T.W. Shannon to “see what direction JRI will take in January.”

“(The governor's) staff was even saying they could sign it and it would go away because there would not be anyone to champion it,” Steele said.

Fallin's office took key steps to undermine the implementation committee co-chaired by Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

The governor's office supported unsuccessful legislation that would have created another panel, making the working group chaired by Steele and Prater only advisory. As a result, both resigned from the group.

Mullins defended the decision.

“We believed we needed a new steering committee that was an official committee from Oklahoma with people that would have the power and influence to affect policy during phase two,” Mullins said. “We thought that was important.”

The emails show a general disdain for dealing with Prater, including his accusations during an August 2012 phone meeting that Fallin's office wasn't being transparent.

“So how many people are on this call that he is ridiculing us on,” Northrup writes Frazier, participating in the phone meeting for the governor's office. “All the more reason to quit doing this.”

Prater said in an interview that he was unable to comment at this time due to “ethical concerns.”

The dust-up over implementation and the behind-the-scenes actions by the governor's staff also contributed to the resignation of Jones, the Corrections Department's director for seven years.

Mullins said Fallin did not seek Jones' resignation.

From the onset, Jones was dubious that the JRI would be funded. Jones said his interactions with Fallin's office on the initiative were “capricious, confusing and lacked consistency.”

“I don't know what the motivation (was) for the weakening of Justice Reinvestment,” Jones said. “It was obvious to me the governor's general counsel's office wanted to control every aspect of the formation and the application of the Justice Reinvestment process to include weakening the chances for success.”

That control extended to determining what DOC could release to the media in response to Open Records requests, Jones said.

Mullins is a former federal prosecutor who has been instrumental in decisions about Fallin's open records policies. He has claimed that emails and other records could be withheld under “executive privilege” if they related to the governor's “deliberative process.”

Fallin and Mullins were given a “Black Hole Award” by FOI Oklahoma Inc., a nonprofit watchdog group dedicated to open records and meetings.

Grants not pursued

Some key players charged with carrying out the law — including Jones and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White — were told not to attend an initial committee meeting, several sources said.

Records show Frazier, Fallin's deputy general counsel until October 2013, attended the meeting “on behalf” of White and Jones, and that Mullins had final say in who would attend. Beforehand, Weintz wonders in an email what will happen if Frazier can't answer the committee's questions.

“I do wonder if we will come off as either needlessly confrontational/worthless if someone asks a reasonable question and the answer is ‘read our letter' ... especially if our letter does not address their question.”

After the September 2012 meeting and resulting media inquiries, the emails indicate Fallin wasn't happy with how her staff handled the decision.

The governor's office initially supported accepting a grant to fund training and coordination, but later decided state funds could be used instead, much to the surprise of those backing the law.

In response to media reports, Fallin's staff continued to defend the decision to turn down at least $250,000 and possibly additional grant money that would assist portions of the law.

The governor did not “reject” federal funds, Weintz explained in an email included in the documents. Instead, she decided “not to pursue a grant,” he said.

A separate email shows Fallin's staff sent the announcement out about “declining” federal funds without first consulting the governor. Mullins and other staffers tried to sell it as Oklahoma not wanting to take unnecessary money from a financially stressed federal government.

Fallin has criticized the federal government's reluctance to provide funding for roads, Medicaid matches or disaster relief, but in this case, didn't want federal funding.

“When her staff wants to be against it — somehow it's magically a different pot of money,” Steele said.

A much-debated coordinator for implementation of the law was never hired. Mullins said that a coordinator is no longer needed and that state agencies charged with implementation of the JRI initiative will use existing funds. Fallin is expected to have $170 million less in fiscal year 2015 for her executive budget. The governor's office has not yet provided budget documents to show how the Justice Reinvestment Initiative reforms will be paid for in the upcoming fiscal year.

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.