Conference on Effective Criminal Justice Strategies enlightens, challenges participants

 Tuesday’s well-attended conference on “Effective Criminal Justice Strategies” drew a large crowd to the Jim Thorpe Museum/Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame on N. Lincoln Boulevard, just a few blocks north of the state Capitol.

Speakers included Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb, Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, Speaker of the House Kris Steele, Michael Thompson from the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, Steve Aos of the Washington state Institute for Public Policy (an arm of the state Legislature there), Amy Santee of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Mimi Tarrasch of Tulsa’s acclaimed Women in Recovery (WIR) program, and three women – one a graduate, and two nearing graduation – who have gone through WIR.

Lamb and Steele spoke frequently throughout the event, describing what Lamb described as “a complex dialogue” that began a year ago. Both have been involved with other government officials and with leaders form the private sector. Steele and Lamb each said reforms before the Legislature this session were designed to create alternatives to incarceration when appropriate, keep the violent in prison, and protect the safety of the public.

Lt. Gov. Lamb moderated the afternoon event, co-sponsored by the Kaiser Foundation (of Tulsa), the Capitol city’s Inasmuch Foundation, and Oklahoma Christian University’s Academy of Leadership and Liberty.

In attendance were government professions in the thick of the fight against crime and facing the realities of tighter budgets in a time of continued financial stress. Also present were private sector leaders who work with the poor and frequently with those who have been incarcerated in Oklahoma, including Rev. Tony Zahn of the Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM).

Steele attested that WIR is “in the business of changing lives, and I’ve seen it work for myself.” He touted cooperation between the state and groups like WIR as a “starting point” for finding effective public-private partnerships to attack problems in criminal justice.

Thompson (no relation to the former Oklahoma legislator and current Insurance Department official) applauded state leaders for tackling the challenging policy changes necessary to fashion what the Council of State Governments has called “justice reinvestment” strategies. Oklahoma, he observed, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, yet a better-than-the-average recidivism rate. The link between those two, however, is murky.

Thompson outlined progress made among policymakers across the nation in understanding how to use statistical data to do a better job of guiding or fashioning criminal justice policies. He said recent experience is proving states can “create financial incentives” to bring “better policy outcomes, including fewer probation revocations.”

Thompson noted that Texas in the past half-decade, and Kansas in the last couple of years, have both moved to reduce prison populations, saving some money and freeing up some resources for alternative strategies. He said it is a major challenge “getting very large systems to recalibrate” away from prison building and toward alternative approaches.

Realistically, Thompson and others at the conference said substantial change is a lengthy process that will take at least 18 months and more likely several years to produce detectable results. However, he said effective first stage strategies include “a focus on risk, using science-based programs, community-supervision strategies and ‘place-based’ strategies.”

As an example of the latter, he pointed to an intensive program in Phoenix, Arizona, a particular urban neighborhood where only one percent of the state’s population – but seven percent of returning incarcerated – lived. Thompson agreed with one questioner that family structure and other cultural problems create special challenges for certain populations, including those that might be deemed eligible for alternatives to incarceration.

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Thompson said that “existing data” from the Uniform Crime Reports and other sources provide many of the statistical reference points to guide good decision-making. “The data is already being captured, but it has to be looked at differently,” he said. He disclosed he was beginning to tackle the Oklahoma data this week.

Aos recounted Washington state’s long journey toward alternative sentencing approaches beginning in the late 1990s, which he said became more effective after a round of legislative oversight in 2002-3. By 2007, the state was consciously avoiding new prison construction and working within existing facilities for incarceration strategies.

Aos characterized his state as having moved from lower- to higher-return-on-investment strategies. Even though crime rates in his state are down since 1980, taxpayer costs are up considerably, even adjusting for inflation.

In terms of effectiveness, Aos said a “portfolio” of treatment strategies have brought better results than mere incapacitation. His data showed effective strategies had generally low double-digit positive impacts, but that officials in his state now felt they had accurate multi-year information on adult drug courts, educational programs, drug treatment in prisons, various therapies and training systems, and low income early childhood education.

Aos said his conclusions were that a focus of effective strategies on high risk populations and research-proven treatment programs, combined with certainty (not necessarily severity) of punishment are effective. He said cost-benefit tough-minded analysis is essential, and that not all things that “work” are sound, economically.

The Oklahoma City conference came at a time of national introspection and policy examination as policymakers seek less expensive, and more effective, means to protect public safety and provide a way back to law-abiding lives for more of those presently incarcerated, or on their way to incarceration.

President Pro Tem Bingman spoke briefly to attendees, praising his colleague Steele for leadership in seeking effective criminal justice strategies. A brief video from a Texas legislator outlined the Lone Star State’s shift, over several years, from incarceration-based strategies to mixed approaches for making criminal justice systems more effective.

Speaker Steele — pressing for significant changes in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system –
is sponsoring House Bill 2131, which would change the “default sentencing structure” from consecutive to concurrent terms, facilitate eligibility for community sentencing and Global Position System Monitoring programs, and limit the involvement of Oklahoma’s governor in parole decisions for non-violent offenders. Steele began a push for major reforms last fall.

The technical presentations were sophisticated and evidence-based, providing fodder for what is becoming one of the most significant issues before the Oklahoma Legislature. However, the emotional highlight of the conference came in the personal testimonies of three women involved with WIR.

Before the trio gave the force of their stories to bolster the data analysis and study, WIR director Mimi Tarrasch and Santee provided details on the accountability systems that make the program effective, much more than an accumulation of good intentions.

Elsewhere in America, coalition groups like “Right on Crime” have recently reinvigorated policy alternatives pressed in past decades decades by groups like Justice Fellowship and Prison Fellowship. At last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in the nation’s capital, Right on Crime organized a major panel discussion focused exclusively on sentencing alternatives and lower-cost approaches to protecting the public while incapacitating the most violent offenders.

Working through a much busier travel schedule than in recent years Patrick Nolan of California, a leading advocate of criminal justice reform based at Prison Fellowship, has become a leading spokesman for Right on Crime.