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OK governor refuses federal cash for prison reform

By   /   March 4, 2013  /   No Comments

By Patrick B. McGuigan | CapitolBeatOK

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma has America’s top female incarceration rate, and consistently runs in the top five for males behind bars. The objective of historic criminal justice reforms passed in 2011-12? Flatten spending hikes and move

Terri White of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services says her agency can fulfill its role in performing pre-sentencing "screenings" under legislation designed to flatten the state's spiraling prison costs.

WHITE: Terri White of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services says her agency can fulfill its role in performing pre-sentencing “screenings” under legislation designed to flatten the state’s spiraling prison costs.

away from that tops-in-the-nation status.

Gov. Mary Fallin supports implementation, spokesman Alex Weintz insists, despite her rejection of anticipated federal funding. Weintz told CapitolBeatOK, “We are committed to this program. We want it to work. It is something the governor supports.”

Weintz and other Fallin advisers defended her decision to rebuff a grant from the Council of State Governments to finance training and technical needs arising from the state’s enactment of prison reforms. The governor’s legal adviser and her spokesman said government agencies have “buy-in” to the reforms.

In the same discussion, Terri White, the head of the Mental Health department, said her agency has enough cash to finance new “crisis centers” to provide a safe and secure place for arrestees more in need of treatment than incarceration.

Weintz said new money or reallocations will finance the shift away from lock-ups of the non-violent:  “The original … request regarding the Department of Mental Substance Abuse Services and the Department of Corrections related to funding for a (Mental Health) server and upgrades to existing servers; contracting with the University of Cincinnati to provide training to those administering the risk assessments and evaluations, substance abuse training, supervision training, and training related to the intermediate revocation facilities.”

Mental Health is to lead assessments of individuals in the criminal justice system for substance abuse, after conviction. The idea is to divert incoming inmates, where possible, into treatment programs.

Corrections will operate Intermediate Revocation Facilities so those in technical (as opposed to willful) violations of parole will be eligible for placement at the community, minimum and medium-security levels.

Weintz insists the goal remains implementation that Fallin once hoped to fund with U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance grant through CSG, i.e. “important training and technology needs contemplated in the original funding request; we have merely altered the source of funding for agency training and technology upgrades. The funds will now be provided from the state as opposed to a third-party.”

Treatment for first-time drug offenders and avoiding lock-ups for the non-violent was pioneered in several states in recent years, including Texas. Asked if the governor had consulted with policy makers, including conservatives, who pressed those programs in other states, Weintz responded:

“No. However, the intent and goal of the governor and her staff is to ensure the success and development of justice reinvestment in the state; this focus remains unchanged.”

Asked if there is “buy-in” from state agencies involved in implementation, Weintz responded, “Yes, the agencies charged with implementation … have been focused and dedicated to implementing JRI in a timely manner and in ensuring its success.”

Last May, Fallin signed the law aiming to slow prison spending growth. House Bill 3052 was crafted with the help of analysts at the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, and talks with “stakeholders.”

HB 3052 mandated post-release supervision and competitive grants for local level crime analysis, encouraged community partnerships and technology, allowed intermediate sanctions for supervision violations, and fashioned options for pre-sentencing assessments.

White referenced a “smart on crime” push that began when Fallin ran for the chief executive’s job in 2010, saying the JRI — “justice reinvestment initiative” – as the 2011-12 reforms were widely known — is a sub-set of that vision. She said with anticipated budget hikes her agency can fulfill its part — including creation of crisis centers for those who need treatment. White added there may be new legislation to authorize earlier screenings and shift that role to district attorneys.

Implementation work has evolved away from principals at the various agencies, toward high-ranking assistants.

Concerning local law enforcement training, Weintz said CapitolBeatOK should contact the attorney general’s office for details.

According to Rebecca Frazier, the governor’s lawyer, the implementation work group now consists of herself, Melissa Houston for the attorney general, White or Carrie Slatton-Hodges for Mental Health, Suzanne Atwood of the District Attorneys’ Council and Eric Franklin at Corrections.

White said new offender screening will be based on evidence-based tools. Her agency believes they can meet goals for front-end “beds” for mentally-ill people caught up in the criminal justice system.

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.

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Patrick B. McGuigan