The Norman Transcript

State/Region

March 9, 2013

Amid crowded jails, Okla. looks to boost felonies

OKLAHOMA CITY — The recent momentum to reduce Oklahoma’s exceptionally high incarceration rate has fizzled out, officials said this week.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, signed by Gov. Mary Fallin last May, aimed to encourage rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, lessen the emphasis on prison time and supervise prisoners after release, among other provisions. All were meant to prevent repeat offending, make the state safer and let the steam out of a strained corrections system.

But the political momentum behind the initiative has slowed. Last week, less than a year after signing the bipartisan law, Gov. Mary Fallin rejected federal funding to implement the program. Additionally, a grant program from the attorney general to local law enforcement hasn’t been implemented and legislators are considering about 10 bills that would increase prison time or create new felonies.

“I’m sort of scratching my head,” Kris Steele, who championed the initiative as House Speaker before meeting his term limit, told The Associated Press.

Oklahoma had the nation’s fifth-highest incarceration rate in 2011, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Roughly one out of every 100 Oklahoma males was in jail at that time. Now, state prisons are at full capacity with 26,000 inmates.

The Department of Corrections annual budget has topped $460 million, surpassed only by the funding for education and human services. The department warned in January it couldn’t take any more transfers from county jails unless it received more than $6 million immediately. The future remains unclear for that request and another for more than $60 million in additional funding next fiscal year.

In her executive budget, Fallin called for a $1 million increase for the coming fiscal year. Calls to Fallin’s office were not immediately returned Friday. But when Fallin rejected federal assistance for justice reinvestment training last week, a spokeswoman said the state would fund the training on its own.

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