By Patrick B. McGuigan | Capitol Beat OK
OKLAHOMA CITY — If you think an historic agreement to handle Oklahoma’s exploding prison population is too good to be true, give yourself a prize.
A working group meeting Thursday to speed implementation of the widely praised Justice Reinvestment Initiative of 2012 instead fell into polite chaos.
It now seems likely the project won’t be ready for its Nov. 1 opening.
The initiative, passed in the spring, is supposed to provide alternative sentencing to help reduce the state’s booming prison population. Oklahoma prisons rank No. 1 nationwide for women and No. 3 for men.
Signs of trouble were present from the beginning. Opening the meeting, Speaker of the House Kris Steele, chairman of the working group, observed that the legislation’s passage last spring was essential, of course, but “ninety percent of the work is still ahead of us.”
Truer words were never spoken.
The meeting quickly broke down over disagreement, clarification and details as participants peppered the governor’s representative with corrections.
Part of the challenge might have been overwork. Speaking not just for Gov. Mary Fallin but for the Oklahoma Corrections Department and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Rebecca R. Frazier did most of the talking — except when others gently corrected her or flatly disagreed with her assessment of the project’s status.
She responded to several questions by saying “I don’t have that information right now” and “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Justice Reinvestment is intended to offer treatment for addictions and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Progressives like the kinder, gentler approach. Everybody likes the long-term savings for taxpayers.
Successful similar programs exist in Texas, and are emerging in North Carolina, Ohio and New Hampshire.
But Thursday’s meeting was like watching a bad rehearsal of a Broadway musical that ought to be farther along.
At one point, Frazier suggested that volunteers from the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation would manage nonviolent offenders serving shorter sentences for probation violations at new Intermediate Revocation Facilities instead of longer sentences in standard prisons.
Not so, foundation staffer Amy Santee, a project supporter. She politely corrected Frazier, saying the foundation’s role is to “carry forward existing treatment programs” at sites like the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center and Mabel Bassett Correctional Center — not to perform IRF treatments.
Santee added that foundation-funded staff are not volunteers, and are credentialed in their fields.
And though the Council of State Governments has offered grants to support the ambitious project, it was soon clear that no one outside of Corrections and Mental Health had applied. A representative of Attorney General Scott Pruitt revealed that the AG’s office hasn’t asked for a grant. Other participants on the working group said they didn’t know about the CSG grant offer. Among those who knew, there was confusion about the grant application process.
The wisest summary of the debacle may have come from Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, the panel’s co-chairman.
“We’re all adults here,” he said. “I think it would require a miracle for us to be ready to implement this law by November 1.”
The panel’s next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, October 11, at the Oklahoma Judicial Center (the state Supreme Court offices) in Oklahoma City.
Contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.