PRISON REFORM: UNDERFUNDED, OUT OF FAVOR
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 took a pass on federal money that could have been used to fund key parts of the law.
Emails obtained by the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman 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
Editor's Note: This story is the first part in a two-part series of stories based on a partnership of the Tulsa World, The Associated Press and The Oklahoman.
Read selected emails and documents regarding the Justice Reinvestment Initiative released under an Open Records Act request. bit.ly/JRIemails
Search a database of private prison political contributions to state candidates since 2004.
— 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 a 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 than 30 percent over the decade.
Thousands of pages of emails recently released by Fallin's administration, many months after they were 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 study.
Reporters from the three media outlets found that some Fallin staff members also emailed among themselves a Sooner Tea Party newsletter that derides the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — or JRI — as "soft on crime." Her staff members also shared a news story that included 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 that Fallin is fully supportive of the law and that 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 its 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 last February to Assistant General Counsel Rebecca Frazier and Northrup, a longtime Fallin adviser.
Politics over policy?
Championed by Steele, a Republican from Shawnee, the law required 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 certain conditions of probation, and it 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.
That portion of the law isn't being carried out as originally intended, Steele told the World.
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 the 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-unquote 'tough on crime.'"
Steele said that in 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 members "were anything but supportive" of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
The emails show a clear concern by Fallin's staff about Steele's communicating with the governor directly regarding the law, monitoring when he called her, and a general dismay over his continued championing of the issue.
Regarding a media request for an interview on where the reforms stood, Fallin's spokesman, Alex Weintz, stated 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 on his way out of the Capitol 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 2," 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 wrote to Frazier, participating in the phone meeting for the Governor's Office. "All the more reason to quit doing this."
Prater told the World 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, DOC's director for seven years.
Mullins said Fallin did not seek Jones' resignation.
From the onset, Jones was dubious that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative 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 the Department of Corrections 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 said emails and other records could be withheld under "executive privilege" if they relate 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 told the World.
Records show that Frazier, Fallin's deputy general counsel until October, attended the meeting "on behalf" of White and Jones and that Mullins had final say on who would attend. Beforehand, Weintz wondered in an email what would happen if Frazier couldn'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, Fallin wasn't happy with how her staff handled the decision, the emails indicate.
The Governor's Office initially supported accepting a grant to fund training and coordination but later decided that 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 the implementation of portions of the law.
The governor did not "reject" federal funds, Weintz said in an email. Instead, she decided "not to pursue a grant," he said.
A separate email shows that Fallin's staff sent the announcement about "declining" federal funds without first consulting the governor. Mullins and other staffers tried to sell it as Oklahoma's 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 or disaster relief, but in this case, she 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 a coordinator is no longer needed and that state agencies charged with implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative will use existing funds.
Fallin is expected to have $170 million less for her executive budget in fiscal year 2015. 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.
Justice Reinvestment Initiative records: a timeline
January 2012: Council of State Governments report released regarding the need for justice system reforms in Oklahoma. May 2012: House Bill 3052, authored by then-Speaker Kris Steele, signed by Gov. Mary Fallin.
Sept. 13,2012: JRI Implementation Working Group holds first public meeting. Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White do not attend. Fallin's deputy general counsel, Rebecca Frazier, is listed as attending on their behalf. Tulsa World requests all correspondence from the Governor's Office regarding JRI.
Sept. 21,2012: General Counsel Steve Mullins responds to the World's request by sending a handful of documents, saying everything else is exempt under "executive privilege."
Sept. 27,2012: The World requests similar records regarding JRI reforms and discussions from officials at DOC and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Within a few weeks, the Governor's Office responds with a small number of records, saying any others are exempt under executive privilege. Oct. 22,2012: Fallin writes letters in support of seeking federal grant funding for key parts of the JRI reforms.
Nov. 6,2012: The World issues a response detailing that the requested records cannot be withheld under Oklahoma's Open Records Act under "executive privilege." The paper requests a denial/response in writing. Feb. 12,2013: In email discussions regarding assistance from the Council on State Governments and accepting grant assistance, Mullins declares: "I think this is the time we cut our losses" and states that the Governor's Office is going to explain that Oklahoma is turning down federal assistance because it wouldn't be fiscally prudent and the state can fund its own reforms. The office announces the decision the following week.
March 13: Fallin's office issues a statement of her support for a House bill that would create a separate implementation panel for the prison reform laws. It fails to pass.
March 14: Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater resign from the JRI Implementation Working Group out of what they say is "disgust" at how the Governor's Office is dealing with JRI reforms.
December: Fallin's office releases the JRI emails and records, which have now been requested by numerous Oklahoma news agencies and the ACLU.