By Cary Aspinwall and Barbara Hoberock
The Associated Press
NORMAN — Editors note: Part One of a two-part look by reporters from The Associated Press, the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman into the implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. using documents obtained from the governor through an Open Records Act request.
TULSA, Okla. — It took less than a year for Oklahoma’s package of prison reform laws to go from political darling to albatross.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative was touted in 2012 as way for Oklahoma to reduce its prison population, help inmates with health or mental problems and save money on future spending within the Corrections Department.
But within months, Gov. Mary Fallin’s staff held meetings without key players, turned away federal money that could have funded programs and expressed concern the state might appear “liberal,” according to emails obtained by the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman and The Associated Press.
Now that two of the initiative’s biggest advocates — former House Speaker Kris Steele and former Department of Corrections director Justin Jones — are no longer in their jobs, it’s unclear where Oklahoma stands and what reforms, if any, are still on target.
Funding for the Corrections Department this year totaled $463.7 million, a standstill budget after Fallin proposed a paltry $1 million bump. The governor did direct more funding to the Department of Mental Health, which handles some JRI reforms, but the Corrections Department did not receive money for the suggested hiring of additional probation officers and parole officers to ease maxed-out caseloads.
“Her staff is much more concerned about the politics than the policy,” Steele said in an interview with the Tulsa World. “In order to get elected in Oklahoma you have to be quote-unquote ‘tough on crime.”’
But Steve Mullins, the governor’s general counsel, said Fallin “looks smart on crime” and that politics has played no role in JRI’s slow rollout.
“In the past I think that might have been true, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Mullins said.
Oklahoma, in a network of public and private prisons, halfway houses and community corrections centers, incarcerates the nation’s highest percentage of its women (1.27 out of every 1,000) and the fourth-highest percentage of men (11.78).
From 2000 to 2010, Oklahoma’s inmate population grew at a rate faster than the state’s population and corrections funding rose more than 30 percent.
The Fallin administration, acting on Open Records requests filed by the AP, the World and Oklahoman, last month released nearly 8,000 pages of documents detailing how the initiative crested toward approval, then crashed into a heap that leaves the bloated corrections system virtually unchanged.
Some emails indicated concern about political implications.
“My thought is why further tie ourselves to liberal corrections reforms groups?” chief of staff Denise Northrup wrote in a discussion about whether Oklahoma should participate in a joint European-American prison project.
Shared among the staff was a Sooner Tea Party newsletter deriding JRI as “soft on crime” and a separate news article in which the House minority leader, a Democrat, said Fallin’s biggest fear in 2014 would be a challenge from the right.
Tea party favorite Randy Brogdon announced Christmas Day he would challenge Fallin in June’s GOP primary.
Mullins, who speaks for the administration on JRI matters, said Fallin supports a new corrections policy and that it is being put in place.
“I don’t think that the traditional, old-fashioned conservative position of lock up more people and throw away the key is good for Oklahoma or good for corrections,” Fallin said.
Several key provisions of JRI remain unfunded. The working group charged with seeing the law through hasn’t met since 2012 — and was largely dismantled after its two chairmen resigned out of frustration.
In an email shortly before the working group broke up, Mullins recommended that the administration portray a decision to turn down federal funds as a demonstration of fiscal thrift.
“I think this is the time we cut our losses,” Mullins states in the email in February 2013 to Northrup and then-Assistant General Counsel Rebecca Frazier.
Championed by Steele, a Shawnee Republican, the law requires mandatory supervision for felons released from prison who were sentenced after the law took effect in 2012. It also created intermediate facilities for those who violate drug court regulations or conditions of probation and parole. The law also created a program controlled by the attorney general’s office to reduce violent crime through grants to local law enforcement agencies.
Mullins acknowledges that progress is slow but that it is progress nonetheless.
Steele said that, based on his conversations with her, Fallin initially supported the Justice Reinvestment Initiative but that Mullins and Northrup changed its direction as he prepared to leave the Capitol under term-limits legislation.
“(The governor’s) staff was even saying they could sign it and it would go away because there would not be anyone to champion it,” Steele said.
The emails show Fallin’s office wanted to change the role of a panel co-chaired by Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater — making it advisory rather than the one implementing JRI — and create a new panel.
As a result, both men resigned from the working group. Prater declined to be interviewed on the record.
Mullins defended the decision to change Steele and Prater’s roles.
“We believed we needed a new steering committee that was an official committee from Oklahoma with people that would have the power and influence to affect policy,” said Mullins, a former prosecutor who described himself as Fallin’s lead policy advisory on JRI.
Jones, a longtime Corrections Department director, resigned last year — without influence from Fallin, Mullins said. Jones said his interactions with Fallin’s office on JRI were “capricious, confusing and lacked consistency.”
“I don’t know what the motivation (was) for the weakening of Justice Reinvestment,” Jones said. “It was obvious to me the governor’s general counsel’s office wanted to control every aspect of the formation and the application of the Justice Reinvestment process to include weakening the chances for success.”
Records show Jones and Terri White, the state’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services commissioner, did not attend meetings with Fallin’s staff, even though they were charged with carrying out the new policy. Frazier went to the meetings “on behalf” of them, the records show.
The governor’s office also initially supported accepting a federal grant for training and coordination, but later decided state funds could be used. Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said in an email that Fallin didn’t “reject” the federal funds but rather decided “not to pursue” them.
Fallin is expected to have $170 million less in fiscal year 2015 for her executive budget. The governor’s office has not provided any budget documents to show how any Justice Reinvestment Initiative reforms will be paid for in the upcoming fiscal year.
Sean Murphy of The Associated Press and Andrew Knittle of The Oklahoman contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.
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