Oklahoma CURE

Ensuring that prisons are used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that prisoners have all the resources they need to turn their lives around.
GET INVOLVED

Connect with us

JOIN THE CAMPAIGN

Oklahoma must forge new course on corrections

Jan 29, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

DURING a recent discussion about whether significant criminal justice reform could happen in Oklahoma in 2015, state Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said he hoped so. “I think we ought to look to Texas as a model,” Bingman said.
Yes, look to Texas. No state in America may have a more pronounced law-and-order image, and yet lawmakers there — Republican lawmakers — finally came to realize that spending more money to warehouse prisoners wasn’t the best fiscal or moral policy.

DURING a recent discussion about whether significant criminal justice reform could happen in Oklahoma in 2015, state Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said he hoped so. “I think we ought to look to Texas as a model,” Bingman said.

Yes, look to Texas. No state in America may have a more pronounced law-and-order image, and yet lawmakers there — Republican lawmakers — finally came to realize that spending more money to warehouse prisoners wasn’t the best fiscal or moral policy.

So in 2007, faced with projections showing about $2 billion in additional spending would be needed to build enough housing for the prisoners expected to enter the system in the coming years, lawmakers approved reforms that reduced the inmate population to the point where three prisons have now been closed. Additionally, the crime rate has fallen by about 20 percent.

“Texas’ experience is proof that being smart on crime does not mean being ‘soft’ on crime,” Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, wrote in the Austin American-Statesman in October 2013. The foundation helped lawmakers shape their reform efforts, which among other things directed money to treatment programs for those inside and outside of prison, and for specialty courts.

“As minor offenders are safely supervised within the community, prison space once spent housing petty thieves is now available for armed robbers,” Rollins wrote. “Violent thugs are punished in prison and kept from society, while the nonviolent property criminal is monitored closely and is still able to contribute to the community, maintain employment, provide for their family, pay for a large percentage of their supervision and — most importantly — provide restitution to the victim of their crimes.”

Texas provides a model for the Smart on Crime movement, which is spearheaded by conservatives and has caught on in other Republican-leaning states. It provided some of the framework for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative approved by Oklahoma lawmakers in 2012. That was championed by former House Speaker Kris Steele and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. Both are Republicans.

Many of the JRI reforms stalled when Steele, who was term-limited, left the Legislature following the 2012 session. The administration backed away for a time, but Fallin has shown renewed interest and recently commissioned a panel to guide JRI implementation.

It will be difficult to duplicate what’s happened in Texas. That state enjoyed a multi-billion dollar surplus when it began its reforms, so it had plenty to invest in programs that would produce savings down the road. Oklahoma may have to cut its budget by about $300 million this year.

Yet this state has clearly reached a point where simply locking away offenders — many of them nonviolent criminals who would be much better served by treatment and services than they would by spending time in prison — isn’t the answer. Oklahoma’s prisons were recently at 116 percent capacity. We lock up more women, per capita, than any other state. Overall, our incarceration rate is among the five highest in the country.

No one at the Legislature, regardless of party affiliation, should be proud of these statistics. And yet many conservatives fear being labeled “soft on crime” if they support sound, proven reforms — or they accuse colleagues who propose them of the same.

We should want to spend taxpayer money in a way that gives offenders a chance to make something better of their lives, and ultimately saves the state money. Dumping them in prison does the opposite. Ultimately, Bingman told The Oklahoman’s editorial board, “We can’t stay on the course we’re on.”

He’s right. Somehow, lawmakers must forge a new course this year.

CLICK for link