Steele looks at future policy challenges as Fallin signs major corrections reform

altAt a ceremony that was frequently infused with emotion, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed House Bill 2131, a significant change in state corrections policy.

Fallin signed the bill in a packed conference room on the second floor of the state Capitol. Women working their way through the Tulsa-based “Women in Recovery” program attended the signing, cheering Governor Mary Fallin and other state officials. The bi-partisan group applauded the chief executive as she called the bill “legislation I believe it is fair to categorize as landmark corrections reform.”

In brief form, as summarized by the governor’s office, H.B. 2131’s provisions include:

1. Expanded offender eligibility for community sentencing programs;

2. Modification of the governor’s role in the parole process for nonviolent offenders; and

3. Establishment of new requirements for members of the Pardon and Parole Board.

State Rep. Chuck Hoskin, a Vinita Democrat who supported the legislation, joined today’s signing ceremony. With some emotion, he said, “It may be raining outside, but today in Oklahoma is a bright and shining day. This shows what we can accomplish when Republicans and Democrats make a decision to work together. When we put aside all of our labels except ‘Oklahomans’ we can achieve a lot.”

Hoskin continued, “We pass many bills. Very few have the potential to do this much good. I’ll tell you, when I walk of this building for the last time, I will remember this bill, and this day.”

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Speaker of the House Kris Steele expressed deep satisfaction after the signing ceremony. He noted that the state perhaps most analogous to Oklahoma, Texas, “passed their reforms when they were flush, financially, in terms of tax revenues. They were able to reallocate toward community sentencing and actually save money. They were able to reinvest the public money into treatment, community-based programs and other investments.

“We have a different situation because of our fiscal reality. We will have to implement other reform ideas incrementally. The goal is to take savings, gains from not having as much in incarceration, and put those dollars into programs that work on the ‘smart on crime’ side.”

He reflected, “The reason the Texas effort, and what we hope to do in Oklahoma, is called ‘justice reinvestment’ is that the idea is to remain tough on crime, take a smarter approach that puts emphasis for the non-violent on education, treatment and prevention of criminal activity.”

Other officials at today’s event included Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones and state Sen. Patrick Anderson, the Enid Republican who shepherded the measure to passage in the upper chamber.

Jones applauded the work of Steele, Anderson and Fallin. Jones told reporters and attendees he offered “heartfelt thanks” to the legislation’s sponsors: “I also would like to single out the efforts of Amy Santee with the George Kaiser Family Foundation who was the glue and sentinel bringing a state team together for the National Governor’s Association Forum on Criminal Justice Best Practices which was the think tank that spawned H.B. 2131.”

He continued, “The state has a great opportunity to apply evidence-based criminal justice practices that enhance public safety while also being cost effective and efficient. This bill supports Governor Fallin’s initiatives to downsize government with measurable positive outcomes. We are an agency that desires to become smaller for all the right reasons, and this bill will assist in that endeavor.

“It will have long term effects for cost savings to the department’s budget in that it provides enhancements to existing best practice models of community sentencing and the GPS reentry program. It also provides an efficient and expeditious process of possible paroles, all of which will assist in cost savings not only to the Department of Corrections but to other aspects of criminal justice, as there will be less future victimization, less collateral damage to children and families and an array of other related savings. This is a significant investment in Oklahoma’s number one asset … its citizens.”

Jones said the bill and the defined objective of “Justice Reinvestment” will, he believes, lead to “more enhanced public safety and government savings through this process which also supports the Governors downsizing initiatives.”

In her comments, the chief executive said, “This bill is about being smart on crime as well as tough on crime. The reforms we are signing into law will not only save taxpayer dollars, they’ll help to address some of the social problems that continue to drag down the quality of life in our otherwise great state. By pursuing responsible community sentencing options that allow non-violent offenders – many of whom have substance abuse problems – to receive treatment and safely reintegrate into their communities, we can help to break a cycle of poverty, drug abuse and crime that has inflated our incarceration rates and hurt Oklahoma communities and families.”

Advocates have pointed to cost savings in Texas, Indiana and Kansas as making the case H.B. 2131. They note that in Oklahoma, it costs an average of $56 a day to incarcerate an offender. It costs roughly $3.50 a day to put someone in supervised community sentencing.

In those programs, the legislation authorizes increased use of Global Positioning System (GPS) monitoring, with an estimated daily expense of $4.75.

Corrections officials estimate the bill could save the agency $5 million a year. System crowding, which has been as high as 99% of capacity, has eased slightly to about 96%. However, Corrections officials are battling what they characterize as only 69% staffing levels after spending reductions in recent years.

Senator Anderson focused his remarks on a less heralded section of the law, which he believes will improve the performance of the Pardon and Parole Board itself, including new qualification requirements.

The law will take effect on November 1, but Jones, Steele and other officials say administrators are endeavoring to shift system priorities in the interim. 

Also speaking at today’s ceremony was Andrea Baker, a graduate of the acclaimed WIR program.

Others participating in the signing were state Rep. Sue Tibbs of Tulsa and Sen. Don Barrington of Lawton, both Republicans who helped advance the measure in this year’s legislative session.