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Oklahoma officials say criminal justice reforms could be costly

Jan 20, 2015 | by Nation_Inside_Team

Though Oklahoma Gov. Fallin, House Speaker Jeff Hickman and other key lawmakers have showed renewed interest in criminal justice reform this year, estimates indicate the Oklahoma Legislature may have $300 million less to spend for the new budget.

Though Oklahoma Gov. Fallin, House Speaker Jeff Hickman and other key lawmakers have showed renewed interest in criminal justice reform this year, estimates indicate the Oklahoma Legislature may have $300 million less to spend for the new budget.

Top state leaders agree that many nonviolent criminal offenders suffering from mental illness or drug addiction should be diverted to treatment programs instead of to Oklahoma’s overcrowded, understaffed and expensive prison system.

But the devil is in the costly details.

Criminal justice reform is expected to be one of the main issues in this year’s legislative session, which begins Feb. 2.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2012, allows people convicted of a nonviolent felony to be sent to a drug court or mental health court, when appropriate, instead of to prison. These courts set them up with lengthy and closely monitored treatment plans. Among other things, the initiative also calls for better monitoring of offenders once they are released from prison.

The governor and the Legislature have been slow to fully back and fund all aspects of the measure, although Fallin, House Speaker Jeff Hickman and other key lawmakers have showed renewed interest in criminal justice reform this year.

Terri White, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health, would like to see an expansion of mental health courts, better screening of offenders for possible diversion, more psychiatric and substance abuse emergency responders throughout the state, two new regional crisis centers and other measures to take the state to the next step of criminal justice reform.

She would like an additional $9.2 million to expand drug courts and mental health courts.

“While we have drug courts in almost every county, many times they are full, and with mental health courts, we only have them in 16 counties,” she said.

“These are people who, without this program, they are going to prison. They are nonviolent offenders who have an untreated mental illness and we end up putting them in prison rather than in this program.”

White isn’t optimistic that her request will be fulfilled. Preliminary estimates indicate the Oklahoma Legislature may have $300 million less to spend for the new budget compared to the current one.

The state would save money in the long run by expanded treatment programs, White said. It’s much less expensive to treat an offender than to incarcerate an offender, and someone undergoing treatment can work and pay taxes.

However, lawmakers say the state simply does not have the money to make more of the up-front investments. This may be true, but White said there also is a cost for inaction.

“You end having to come up with more money for the Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services,” White said.

Number of inmates

Oklahoma’s inmate count continues to grow, although without drug courts, it would grow even faster, White said.

Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the country for women and is in the top five for its male incarceration rate. Half of its 27,000 inmates are in prison for nonviolent crimes.

One of the biggest drivers of the big inmate count is a list of about two dozen offenses for which offenders need to serve at least 85 percent of their incarceration time. Initially there were about a dozen crimes on the list, but lawmakers continue to add new ones.

An early test of the Legislature’s commitment to justice reform may come when lawmakers debate a bill state Rep. Bobby Cleveland plans to introduce concerning these crimes.

Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, is going to introduce a bill that failed last year. It was to allow people convicted of these crimes to accumulate good behavior credits during their prison terms so that they could be released as soon as they hit the 85 percent threshold. Currently, such credits can be accumulated only after this threshold, meaning these inmates might have to serve 90 percent or more of their sentences before they are finally released.

The idea was to give inmates a reason to be on their best behavior during the entire course of their incarceration. It would also help reduce Oklahoma’s problem of prison overcrowding and save the state Corrections Department some incarceration costs. It was supported by state corrections officials and the state’s District Attorneys Council.

Cleveland’s bill was sailing to passage in the House until an argument was made that those who supported it were being “soft on crime.” That’s when the tide turned and it was defeated easily.

“There was a guy who said I’m letting out our murderers, rapists, child molesters, insinuating they would get out before they did 85 percent of their time, which was not true,” he said. “People were scared that they would appear soft on crime. It fizzled.”