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December 29, 2013

Report: Many struggles weakened state’s justice reform efforts

NORMAN — Behind-the-scenes moves by Gov. Mary Fallin’s senior staff members helped lead to a severe weakening of a program designed to cut the state’s high incarceration rates and save taxpayers more than $200 million over a decade, according to interviews and records obtained by Oklahoma Watch.

The efforts by the governor’s staff, assisted by legislative leaders, to take control of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative took place during periods when staff members met with representatives of private prison companies, which stood to gain or lose depending on how the initiative was implemented, emails and logs of visitors to Fallin’s office show.

During that time, private-prison company representatives also made donations to Fallin’s 2014 campaign as well as to legislators, Oklahoma Ethics Commission records indicate.

Steve Mullins, Fallin’s general counsel, said private prison groups and lobbyists played no role in the approach that he and other staff members took.

Mullins also pointed out that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI, did not die. Several reforms, such as public-safety grants, received state funding and have been implemented.

But the JRI’s biggest supporters said the program was left in near shambles after the governor’s office delayed carrying it out, reversed itself on seeking a federal grant and orchestrated a move to keep former House Speaker Kris Steele from leading a group overseeing implementation.

Steele said he believes a political desire to appear “tough on crime” and pressure from private prison groups ultimately curbed any serious reform efforts.

Throughout the JRI process, Fallin has expressed support for the program and its goals. The goal of the JRI was to steer nonviolent offenders away from prison, lowering the state’s incarceration rates and costs and using the savings to pay for public-safety efforts.

But the planned funding dropped, sentencing alternatives aren’t being carried out, fewer pardon and parole officers to monitor offenders were added, and crime-reduction strategy training for local law enforcement agencies didn't occur. The initiative also has no official coordinator.

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