Oklahoma: Next criminal justice success story?
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, July 15, 2012
7/15/12 at 2:49 AM
Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele is thinking big. He almost sounded like a Texan in an interview last week when he predicted that "Oklahoma might well be the next national criminal justice success story."
Is that possible?
Absolutely, based on what's happening in Texas, a state that five years ago adopted the very same Justice Reinvestment strategy that the Oklahoma Legislature passed into law this session.
Last week, Texas proudly announced an 8.3 percent reduction in its violent crime rate for 2011 and a 1.45 percent drop in its incarceration rate.
To paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden: This is a big (blankety blank) deal.
It's also validation that the Oklahoma Legislature, the perennial Cowardly Lion of criminal justice reform, finally had the courage to adopt a rational approach to crime and punishment - and to fund it. The initiative - $3.67 million this fiscal year - makes sense from public policy, economic and public safety standpoints. Steele championed House Bill 3052 and managed to get it into law during a session in which a lot of small-minded shenanigans occurred. For it to work, however, Steele's successors must follow through with at least two more years of investment before the state realistically starts seeing measurable drops in crime and prison costs. And, even after that, the state must continue to support the mission.
There's every reason to believe those future cost savings will occur along with better outcomes for taxpayers and inmates. This is nearly too much to fathom in a state that's experienced a 30 percent increase in prison appropriations over the past decade and a violent crime rate that's remains virtually unchanged; a state that ranks No. 4 in overall incarceration per capita and No. 1 for women per capita.
A Texas toast
Texas' dramatic crime drop far exceeds the national trend and stands in stark contrast to Illinois, which has yet to reconsider its failed criminal justice polices. Illinois is paying the price. By February it will hit 146 percent of prison capacity, with a prison population of almost 50,000 inmates. Yet, its murder rate has dropped by only 0.5 percent and its robbery rate 1.7 percent since 2005.
Relatively speaking, Oklahoma isn't in much better shape. Our prisons are at 98 percent capacity. We're running out of room to house the really bad guys - the murderers, major meth-makers, rapists and robbers - people who need to be kept off the street. Yet we continue to incarcerate far less serious offenders, which costs up to $25,000 a year apiece. That's about the same cost, with room and board, as sending one student to a public university for a year.
So, what do Oklahomans get for the $3.7 million investment this fiscal year?
- $1 million. The Department of Corrections will buy more equipment for probation officers and eventually will hire more probation officers. Starting Nov. 1, every inmate leaving prison will receive a minimum of nine months' supervision. Before, only half of inmates getting out of prison received any supervision at all. During supervision, ex-offenders will be monitored and connected with resources that could help them quit committing crimes and start gearing themselves toward more productive lives. DOC also will create intermediate revocation centers for inmates committing a technical violation (breaking curfew, failed drug test) while on probation. Inmates can be sent to these centers for up to six months and will receive treatment instead of being sent back to prison for several years - a more expensive option.
- $ 2 million. Local law enforcement agencies can apply for grants from a fund administered by the state Attorney General's Office. Grants could be used for technology and for crime-fighting initiatives.
- $667,000. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will use the money for mental health assessments of inmates after they are sentenced but before they go to prison. This way, the courts will have a better handle on who needs treatment and how to get at the root cause of why the criminal behavior occurred in the first place. (The mental health department also received $5.5 million - not part of the Justice Reinvestment funding - that will be used to build a crisis intervention center.)
In the next two fiscal years, the state would invest $6 million to $7 million each year into the initiative. By year four or five, the new law should start reducing the rate of prison growth, improving public safety and offering better outcomes for inmates. At least that's what's happened in Texas.
The measure represents a turning point for how the state deals with public safety and corrections. The Oklahoma solution to crime has been to lock up too many low-risk offenders, who need to be punished but who could be better handled in cheaper community settings. Sending low-risk offenders to prison to mingle with more hardened criminals is risky policy and can be the worst training ground for people whose lives might be turned around with alternative options, Steele said.
"We tend to base decisions on emotions and anecdotal stories," Steele said. That's not particularly helpful and very expensive.
"It's absolutely remarkable what's happening in Texas because not only has it implemented the Justice Reinvestment strategy, it has also followed through," he said. "Follow-through will make the difference; that's where the rubber meets the road. Ninety percent of the work is ahead in making sure to monitor and tweak polices as we go along."
HB 3052 actually goes even further than the Texas legislation, passed in 2007. Oklahoma's bill does more to address public safety needs and crime prevention by equipping law enforcement with more resources to fight crime. Steele won't be around at the Capitol to see Oklahoma become the national success story that he predicts. He's finishing up his last term in office. He considers House Bill 3052 to be "one of the most important pieces of public policy legislation of his public service career - if not the most important."
"I think, with experience," he said, "that we'll get the exact same results as Texas."
Original Print Headline: Thinking big
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
Instructor Kate Neary-Pounds (background) teaches a class to prisoners at the Jess Dunn Correctional Center near Taft. New prison legislation could do more to address the needs of public safety and crime prevention by equipping law enforcement with resources to fight crime. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World