At ‘Right on Crime’ unveiling, Steele says time is right for reform, predicts broad support

 With a leading politician and a respected policy analyst at his side during the “Right on Crime” press conference in the state Capitol Blue Room last week, Michael Carnuccio of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the state group advocating for the national initiative, reflected, “Public safety is the core principle of government. When we spend money on corrections and criminal justice policy, we need to ask ourselves what programs actually work.” 

A former legislative staffer now serving as president of the free market
“think tank” in Oklahoma City, Carnuccio recalled that at a conference
in Cleveland last year, he heard several conservative leaders, including
Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, “talking about the results
of the reforms in Texas, where they are doing more with less and it is
effectively countering crime.”

He told reporters, “In more areas than football, often in Oklahoma – in fact year after year — we are somewhat obsessed with what Texas is doing. If Texas is doing a better job than formerly on criminal justice, we can do that, and do it better.”

Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, has for several years been on his own journey toward corrections reform – and reorientation of at least some criminal justice policies toward an active search for alternatives to incarceration.

About three years ago, he began to work with a Tulsa-based group known as Women in Recovery (WIR), a group funded by the private George Kaiser Family Foundation, which has concentrated on women brought into prisons and jails as a result of drug offenses and other violations of law deemed “non-violent.”Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb is also advocating sweeping reform, and has become another leading conservative advocate of WIR and similar programs.

Steele, who has made the WIR program well-known among policy analysts and reform advocates, said at last week’s event that he had been repeatedly impressed with the people running, and the women involved in, the innovative program. He stressed their 90% success rate (and low recidivism) as reasons for emulation.

The Speaker is a passionate advocate of the program in which women have gone from troubled lives and are now “leading positive and productive lives.”

This year, Steele is advancing House Bill 2131, to nudge the state system in a different direction. As Steele summarized the bill’s provisions, the measure would make the state’s “default sentencing” consecutive rather than concurrent. It would boost community sentencing, limit the governor’s role in the parole process, and establish new guidelines for pardon & parole.

Steele welcomed “Right on Crime” to Oklahoma, saying, “Their initiatives mirror ours in being tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time.”

The Sooner State’s prisons are at 99% capacity. Steele observed, “This is my eleventh year in the Legislature, and in each year except one, we have needed to deal with a supplemental appropriation for the Legislature.”

The very day of the Right on Crime “launch” in the Blue Room, the House had voted to allow officials with the Corrections Department to access a work program fund to fill in spending gaps and avoid furloughs of guards.

The House had also passed H.B. 2131, 87-4. Only four Republicans, including state Rep. Randy Terrill of Oklahoma City, opposed the measure on “third reading.” The bill has now advanced to the Senate for consideration.

In the Blue Room, Steele asserted the state must find ways to 1) save dollars, 2) get better outcomes from, and better services for, those incarcerated, while 3) increasing public safety.

The third speaker at the Capitol event was Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He praised Speaker Steele and said the “bottom line” was that the Lone Star State had found, along with a few other American states, “more cost effective ways of getting mad at criminals, and forcing them to pay their bills.” He reported Texans began to shift criminal justice program emphases about six years ago, when the state was first in per capital incarceration. Today it it fourth – one spot behind Oklahoma, and trending down.

Levin said Texans have learned that even with those who have already been inside prison walls, certainty of graduated sanctions, with swift and sure consequences for probation violations, are more effective than traditional “tough on crime” prescriptions.

Texas shifted emphasis at a time that the state was projecting massive new prison construction by 2012. State Rep. Jerry Madden, a conservative Republican, guided a shift of resources toward community corrections, drug treatment, parole reforms and other changes. In the process, the crime rate lowered 10% and, Levin said, the state government “saved a fortune.” Texans and others have deemed this approach “Justice Reinvestment.”

In a question directed at Speaker Steele, CapitolBeatOK observed this was at least the third wave of focus on restorative justice or alternatives to incarceration since the mid-1980s. Asked if he believed there was actually a basis for broad agreement across the political spectrum, and, if so, what was the basis for such accord, Steele responded:

“This is one of those issues that defies partisan politics. It is something that all points of the political spectrum can come together on. It makes sense from a fiscal standpoint, but also from a human resource standpoint. It is an effort to get better policy, including in allowing children to stay with their mothers, and families to stay together whenever possible.

“The time is now to have a very serious discussion based on the evidence. There is a strong foundation, and we need examples from the other states on what works.”

Steele’s response echoed points he made in a lengthy interview last fall, in which he described himself as “convicted” of the necessary for dramatic reform.

In further dialogue on the issue with other reporters, Steele predicted Oklahomans of diverse views would respond to the “Right on Crime” analysis. He said, “Truly, this is an issue that can bring good results from one end of the spectrum to the other. It is a great issue to bring people together.”

This year’s proposals are “only a start. Next, we’ll need to tackle sentencing guidelines, and look at those carefully as we are going forward.”

In material prepared for the press conference, which drew every news organization that offices at the Capitol and several others that do not, OCPA and “Right on Crime” listed these items as “key takeaways” for broader consideration:

Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate, a well as the fifth highest male incarceration rate, in the nation.
As of 2008, Oklahoma spent $491 million annually on corrections, equaling 7 percent of the state’s general fund. Today, Oklahoma faces a $600 million budget deficit.
Nearly 7 in 10 incarcerated women are classified as nonviolent offenders. Removing women from the home for nonviolent offenses is not only extremely disruptive to their families, but can also lead to a life of crime being passed down to future generations.

Selected “data points” for consideration are these:

“Today, 1 in 42 Oklahomans are under some form of correctional control. In Oklahoma, $52.10 can fund one day of prison for an offender or 19 days of probation or parole. … As of 2008 there were 2,771 women incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons – nearly 2.5 times the national average.

“Of the 2,651 female offenders that served time in Oklahoma prisons in [Fiscal Year] 2009, 67.6 percent were considered nonviolent offenders. In 2010, 78 percent of women who entered prison were identified as minimal public safety threats. More than 28,000 children in Oklahoma have parents in prison.

Right on Crime has attracted a stellar list of endorsements from dozens of national conservative leaders, including Norquist, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, and Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute. The OCPA’s Carnuccio recently became a signatory to the group’s statement of principles.

The statement declares the criminal justice system, as an extension of the entire framework of American governance, must reinforce “order and respect for every person’s right to property and life,” while assuring “liberty does not lead to license.”

The statement insists on transparency and a demand for accountability from actors within it, including police, prison guards, corrections officers and those who are incarcerated. Signatories believe performance standards should be in place – and enforced. Victims of crime are considered key “consumers” of justice in the “Right on Crime” statement of principles.

The statement contends prisons and corrections should be not only places of incapacitation, but also of safety, “personal responsibility, work, restitution, community service, and treatment.” Offenders willing to reform and return to society should be transformed through “families, charities, faith-based groups, and communities.” System accountability must align with both cost-effectiveness and public safety, and move away from one “that grows when it fails.”

Crime, the Right on Crime Statement of Principles argues, should not become an excuse “to grow government and undermine economic freedom.”

Many, but not all, of the groups involved in Right on Crime are, like Prison Fellowship, faith-based. The group has supported alternatives to incarceration for some crimes, and was influential in the development of new crime-fighting models in Texas and other states.

Note: Patrick B. McGuigan is the editor of “Crime and Punishment in Modern America” (University Press of America, 1986; second edition 1987).