Monday, March 18, 2013

Incarceration Rates must be dealt with!

Weekly Opinion Editorial

Incarceration rates must be dealt with!
by Steve Fair
According to the US Department of Justice, Justice Reinvestment is a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods. The purpose of justice reinvestment is to manage and allocate criminal justice populations more cost-effectively, generating savings that can be reinvested in evidence-based strategies that increase public safety while holding offenders accountable. States and localities engaging in justice reinvestment collect and analyze data on drivers of criminal justice populations and costs, identify and implement changes to increase efficiencies, and measure both the fiscal and public safety impacts of those changes.

In his last year in office(2012), former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele, (R-Shawnee), embraced the justice reinvestment plan and authored HB #2131 which was designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient and cost-effective. The bill was signed into law in May.  At the time of the bill’s signing, Steele said, “It’s (HB #2131) increasing public safety and it's being more responsible with taxpayers' resources.” Steele’s goal was to decrease the number of non-violent offenders in Oklahoma prisons by implementing a system that provided alternate punishment to incarceration.

The JRI plan starts by establishing a bipartisan working group of elected and appointed officials to work with criminal justice policy experts. This working group then consults with prosecutors, public defenders, judges and corrections and law enforcement officials to work through two phases in a 2-3 year period.  In Phase 1, they analyze data, develop policy options, and adopt new policies.  In Phase 2, they implement the new policies and evaluate how well they are working. 

At the time, JRI was lauded as a great idea by The Oklahoman.  In an editorial, they wrote, “This proposal also would apply the brakes to the runaway train that is Oklahoma's prison population. Instead of growing by more than 2,500 to a total of 29,720 in fiscal year 2021, as is projected, the inmate population would increase by about 600 during that time. Beginning in fiscal year 2014, the slower-growing prison population would save the state $13 million annually.”

After the establishment of the JRI working group, co chaired by Steele and Oklahoma County DA David Prater, nineteen total members were appointed to start the process.  The Working Group was supposed to be the supreme authority in the implementation of JRI, but evidently that is not the case. 

Last week, during the Working Group’s meeting, Governor Mary Fallin’s Chief Counsel Steve Mullins called the Working Group an ad hoc committee that didn’t have the authority to implement JRI.  After a heated exchange, Steele and Prater resigned.

Interestingly just the night before the meeting, the Oklahoma House passed HB # 2042 authored by Representative Jason Murphey, (R-Guthrie) by a 57-35 margin.  If it passes the Senate and is signed into law, it would formalize the implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.  “The JRI initiative is part of a ‘smart on crime’ philosophy that I have long advocated for,” said Fallin. “I am absolutely committed to seeing this initiative succeed. We need to get non-violent offenders whose crimes are related to addiction and substance abuse the help they need to get sober and be constructive members of their community. That’s why it’s so important we get JRI right.

The Tulsa World attacked Murphey’s bill calling it a ‘backstab’ of Steele.  In an editorial they said; “Conservative lawmakers elsewhere, such as Texas, have instituted JRI reforms with stunning results. Texas has its lowest violent crime rate in 30 years and closed a prison because of declining prison growth. If Oklahoma does nothing, someday it will end up with a court ordering it to depopulate prisons. State leaders had the chance to do this themselves, systematically and rationally. But, oh no. Our leaders are smarter than those in Texas and elsewhere, right? What's the real reason they don't want to contain prison growth?”

The bottom line is Oklahoma has a high incarceration rate and needs to address it.  Oklahoma's rate of female incarceration is more than twice the national rate and is increasing every year. Oklahoma's incarceration rate ranks fourth nationally for males and first for females. Approximately 24,000 people are incarcerated in Oklahoma today.  JRI has worked in other states.  Oklahoma government must commit to seeking other alternates to just throwing lawbreakers into the slammer.

On a personal note, the Stephens County Republican Party lost a true friend last week when Ed Hicks died.  Ed was unapologeticly Republican, but more importantly he was a patriot.  I remember him giving me a picture of his grandchildren years ago when I was running for the State Senate and telling me that was why he was so passionate about his country.  Ed put his money where his mouth was when it came to politics.  I will miss him.

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