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Oklahoma officials say budget hole won't put brakes on justice reform

Feb 18, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

At the first meeting of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s Justice Reform Steering Committee on Monday, the first thing they agreed to was to recommit to justice reforms that haven’t always received full support among Oklahoma lawmakers. Texas has been able to reduce its incarceration rate and its crime rate by spending hundreds of millions on treatment programs providing alternatives to prison for many nonviolent offenders. Oklahoma doesn’t have that kind of money — and in fact is facing a $611.3 million budget hole — but can still begin to make the kind of gains seen by its neighbor to the south.

At the first meeting of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s Justice Reform Steering Committee on Monday, the first thing they agreed to was to recommit to justice reforms that haven’t always received full support among Oklahoma lawmakers.

by Rick Green Published: February 16, 2015

Texas has been able to reduce its incarceration rate and its crime rate by spending hundreds of millions on treatment programs providing alternatives to prison for many nonviolent offenders.

Oklahoma doesn’t have that kind of money — and in fact is facing a $611.3 million budget hole — but can still begin to make the kind of gains seen by its neighbor to the south.

That was the message Monday after the first meeting of Gov. Mary Fallin’s Justice Reform Steering Committee. The governor has called together some of Oklahoma’s top political and state agency leaders in a focused attempt to reduce an inmate population that is overflowing prisons and draining state revenue.

The first thing they agreed to was to recommit to justice reforms that haven’t always received full support among lawmakers.

“We’re basically saying we want to move forward with that issue,” said Steve Mullins, the governor’s general counsel. “We committed to that, and we’re going to try to find ways to fine tune it, fund it and move forward.”

Fallin is trying to reverse a two-decade trend that has seen the length of time served by Oklahoma prisoners grow by 83 percent, while the state’s crime rate remains well above the national average.

One of the first steps is to better understand the offenders before they are sent off to prison, Mental Health Commissioner Terri White said.

A program to screen them for mental health and substance abuse issues has received $1 million out of $5 million requested to date. It’s used in 18 counties but could be expanded statewide with full funding.

“If they are high mental health and substance abuse need but low criminal risk, those are probably good candidates for a diversion program like drug court, like mental health court,” White said.

Other steps that can help is to find ways to better deal with those already in prison, including better addressing their mental health needs, Corrections Department Director Robert Patton said.

“What are we doing to prepare them to step down in custody?” he said.

More supervision is needed when an inmate is finally released.

“We can’t just pat them on the back and say, ‘Great job for the last five years you’ve spent in prison,’” Patton said.

In terms of funding, Mullins said the state will have to get creative, look for ways to work better across agencies, remove redundancies, be more efficient and improve existing “Smart on Crime” and “Justice Reinvestment Act” programs.

Texas appropriated $241 million in 2007 alone for a package of prison alternatives that included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts and mental illness treatment slots.

Although Oklahoma can’t make that kind of up-front investment, it can develop its own successful program, said Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Fallin.

“We need a different way forward, so that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma; Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and Melissa McLawhorn Houston, chief of staff for Attorney General Scott Pruitt, also attended the meeting.

The committee agreed to form subcommittees on policing strategies, sentencing, treatment, incarceration programs, supervision and employment.

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