Robert Coombs from Council of State Governments hopeful for Oklahoma’s justice reinvestment plans

Robert Coombs, senior policy analyst and public affairs manager for the Justice Reinvestment program at the Council of State Governments (CSG), is in Oklahoma this week to meet with legislators about issues covered in House Bill 3052, Speaker of the House Kris Steele’s new criminal justice legislation.

Coombs participated in a Monday press conference in the state Capitol Blue Room, in meetings with both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, and in discussion of legal policy with citizens and journalists in Oklahoma City.

H.B. 3052 covers incarceration, alternatives to incarceration, mental
health needs within the justice system, Corrections policy, law
enforcement grants, probation and parole and other areas.

Coombs and other analysts with CSG assisted the state in development of “Justice Reinvestment in Oklahoma,” an analysis and policy framework, laying out the Sooner State’s existing challenges, including projections of significant additional costs for incarceration – in a state that already has one of America’s highest imprisonment rates.

Speaker Steele’s legislation is intended to avoid the cost acceleration, and use some of the avoided costs (savings) to “reinvest” in alternatives to incarceration.

Coombs came to criminal justice reform from a policy management background, saying the work of CSG’s justice reinvestment initiative (JRI) is “entirely consistent with the work I’ve done for a long time, which is to focus on evidence-based strategies. We always went with what the data showed and not just what felt good. Using strong evidence-based strategies increases accountability and reduces recidivism.”

CapitolBeatOK asked Coombs if he could outline why a fresh look is being taken at criminal justice and incarceration issues both in Oklahoma and across the nation. He commented, “I don’t worry too much about the why. I see evidence both ways — that people simply want to do the right thing, and that others are worried primarily about the economy and our ability to pay for the old approaches over time.

“What I do care about is that people are looking at research and not merely blindly spending more and more. More legislators and people in general than ever before want to know ‘do things work’ and why they work — or don’t.”

Coombs continued, saying there are “many reasons for this shift, in my mind. The economy is certainly driving people to reevaluate outcomes. The outcomes from spending a lot on prisons have not been that great, and the evidence tells us that better supervision, treatment for drug addition and treatment for mental illness shift people out of the system and make outcomes better.”

Coombs has worked at CSG for the last two years. Previously, he was chairman of the California Sex Offender Management Board, an appointed position, and worked with that state’s Coalition Against Sexual Assault. A University of Colorado graduate, he has quickly established a reputation for criminal justice policy analysis, and communication skills in the present national sense of introspection about matters of justice and public policy.

Coombs told CapitolBeatOK, “Nationally, a very significant shift in thinking is under way. Violent crime rates have dropped 20 percent while some of these better approaches have been tried, but in Oklahoma the rates have been flat or in some cases worse. Why is that?

“We were glad to be part of this effort to find what the state was doing wrong, or put differently, what it was not doing right.”

Encouraged to rate the process Oklahoma has undergone since last summer using resources provided by CSG and the U.S. Department of Justice to survey systems and outcomes for prisons, jails, law enforcement, probation, parole, mental health issues in the system and other policy challenges, he reflected:

“We had a very short time line in which to work, but we had the benefit of experience in other states; and, you have tremendous leadership here. Despite the involvement of hundreds of people already, and all those meetings with stakeholders in every part of the criminal justice system, the truth is that some key figures in the Legislature and around the state have not yet hand a chance to ask their questions.

“That’s what is good about the process right now. If people are not sure about where we’re headed, I encourage them to study this wealth of very sound data. Without studying the data and the issues for themselves, it could make people suspicious.

“What I encourage people to do is to give the data and the alternatives the benefit of some doubt. I ask anyone who opposes this or who is uncertain about the risks to consider if supporting the status quo is better than this effort at fixing ineffective policies and addressing problems.”

Pointing to projections the state will need, without reforms, another several thousand prison beds, he continued, “I’m not sure anyone really wants to spend another $260 million to lock people up in Oklahoma. No wants to be in that position, especially when there are strategies that are both more effective at addressing the crime, and less expensive for the law-abiding.”

Coombs concluded, “The time frame has been stressful but now the state can make a real start. In the end, the response that has been fashioned in this new law is straight-forward. It is a common sense and practical reform. It will make sense to those who take time to read and study, and reflect on it. They will know and see that this is better than the runaway freight-train of prior spending.”

Note: Patrick B. McGuigan, editor of CapitolBeatOK, is also the editor of four compilations of essays on criminal justice policy issues, including “Crime and Punishment in Modern America” (University Press of America, 1986).