Fresh opportunity for prison reform

PrisonCrowd1Our state leaders boast, and rightly so, about what is called “The Oklahoma Standard” — the compassion, speed and effectiveness of responses to natural disasters like spring’s tornadoes and acts of terror like the A.P. Murrah Building bombing in 1995.

Let’s apply that standard to counter the financial time bomb that lies at the end of the state’s unsustainable prison policies. Making the standard work for prison reform is both practical and principled — a moral response to a legal problem eating at the fabric of our society.

Oklahoma remains disastrously lost in the mire of one of America’s highest prison incarceration rates.

PrisonGuardNow that Justin Jones, the director of the Department of Corrections, has announced he’s leaving after a rocky three years at the post, Gov. Mary Fallin and other state leaders should make a fresh start on implementing transformational policy changes enacted in 2012, but virtually ignored since then.

Some conservatives faulted Jones for often seeking supplemental appropriations. He said he needed the cash to stay ahead of the state’s burgeoning prison population (a number driven fundamentally not by his administration but by public policy in the form of “tough” sentences).

In recent months, Jones clashed with Fallin’s budget hawks for, they asserted, hiding around $22 million in operating reserves. The disputed amount was closer to $6 million, but agency reserves are no surprise to anyone who regularly monitors government budgeting.

To his credit, Jones supports the Justice Reinvestment Initiative intended to advance alternatives to incarceration. Given Oklahoma’s unenviable record for the highest rates of female imprisonment — and a top-five spot for male incarceration — this reform is overdue.

Our neighbors in Texas, no squishes on crime, have been among national pioneers in lowering incarceration rates. Under Gov. Rick Perry, the Lone Star State has pursued clear-eyed strategies that led, remarkably, to cancellation of prison construction in 2011-12.

Once upon a time, there might have been a rationale for quick resorts to long prison terms as the primary response to wrongdoing. As U.S. prison populations expanded over the years, research on effective alternatives was spotty or inconsistent.

Laborers in the criminal justice vineyard have learned that early interventions (avoiding incarceration for non-violent offenses in the first place), treatment for first- and second-time offenders, and post-release supervision could flatten or reduce the numbers (and the cost).

Such efforts work when focused on redeemable individuals not yet settled into permanent lives of crime, yet at high risk for committing future offenses.

PrisonWomanObviously, for the most violent crimes, incarceration remains a valid and moral response to the worst offenses. But for many violations, including minor drug offenses, lengthy jail time is ineffective. Information about factors that drive crime and recidivism can help policymakers reduce crime rates.

One thing that works is keeping a closer eye on past offenders once they get out of jail. That’s why House Bill 3052, former Speaker Kris Steele’s reform measure signed into law by Fallin, included explicit language requiring such supervision.

Yet Barbara Hoberock of the Tulsa World has found that a key provision of H.B. 3052 — the mandatory monitoring of felons after their incarceration — is being largely ignored. In fact, statewide, only nine offenders are getting that supervision, whereas 1,621 should be under post-sentence scrutiny.

It’s time for a fresh start. This week’s news means Oklahoma still has time and opportunity to take a better approach, based on the successes in Texas and a handful of other states.

Fallin should insist upon, and corrections’ governing board should conduct, a national search for an administrator with proven success in keeping the worst offenders locked up, while providing a path to re-entry for the non-violent and the salvageable.

In addition to Fallin’s representative, any hiring committee should include public servants with actual experience in corrections and advocates of data-supported proven reforms.

The foregoing would be a practical step, and a way for Fallin and her allies, including Attorney General Scott Pruitt, to prove me and other analysts wrong in concluding that prison reform is being “slow-played” and deliberately gutted right now.

PrisonAging2Oklahoma can do better, and it must.

In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, “A World Split Apart,” Russian patriot Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke truth to power when he said:

“I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is scarcely taking advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society.

“Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”

Moral mediocrity is unworthy of Oklahoma’s governing structures, including its prisons and jails. Fallin should insist on excellence.


About the author: Pat McGuigan is the editor of “Crime and Punishment in Modern America”  (University Press of America, 1986) and author of hundreds of articles on criminal justice policy. Contact McGuigan at and follow on Twitter: @capitolbeatok. Story credit also goes to