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January 5, 2014

Uncertain future for state prisons

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.

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