After several stalled attempts, Oklahoma group taking prison reforms to vote of the people

As chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, former Speaker Kris Steele is leading efforts to collect more than 65,000 petition signatures that would allow two state questions to be added to November’s ballot, both aimed at reducing the state's prison population and refocusing spending on treatment and rehabilitation. Will it work?

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Kris Steele speaks on Thursday, March 10, 2016, at Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
At Tulsa’s Women in Recovery office this past week, Kris Steele spoke about the mission of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and two ballot initiatives the group is supporting. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Kris Steele stepped up to the microphone in a packed room at Tulsa’s Women in Recovery office and declared this time, in 2016, Oklahoma was going to break through the “political gridlock” by taking criminal justice reform to a vote of the people.

As he spoke, someone noticed the microphone was turned off.

It didn’t matter.

For more than five years, Steele, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, has been talking about the importance of criminal justice reform for Oklahoma’s fiscal bottom line, its citizens and children.

Now, facing a $1.3 billion budget crisis and prisons packed above 120 percent of capacity, it appears Oklahoma is finally ready to listen.

Steele, along with a bipartisan coalition of state power players, is hoping Oklahoma voters will accomplish what elected officials did not in several prior attempts: reducing the state’s staggering prison population. They hope to redirect some of the savings toward addressing root causes of crime, shifting the state toward a corrections system that focuses on rehabilitation, not solely punishment.

As chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, Steele is leading efforts to collect more than 65,000 petition signatures that would allow two state questions to be added to November’s ballot.

State question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, such as drug possession and smaller property crimes. The idea is that reclassification would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and trigger cost savings, badly needed in a state facing a budget crisis where leaders are considering trimming school days to make ends meet.

State question 781 would then invest those prison cost savings in programs designed to address the root causes of crime — including addiction, mental health issues and poverty — and programs that provide job training and education to offenders as they leave prison.

This time, as Steele was speaking about the importance of saving on prisons and reinvesting in people, he was surrounded by local leaders, including a representative for a conservative think tank, a preacher and Mike Neal, the president of Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Neal described the state’s “overly punitive” criminal justice system and the need to focus on rehabilitating more offenders into “productive, tax-paying members of society.”

Steele smiled as Neal thanked him for his leadership on the issue, turned to the preacher next to him asked: “Can I get an Amen?!”

Numerous voices answered: “Amen!”

Oklahoma State Capitol
Oklahoma State Capitol. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Third time’s a charm?

So why take these complex issues to a vote of the people instead of trying to solve them through the legislative process?

When it comes to attempts to shrink Oklahoma’s massive prison-industrial complex, this isn’t Steele’s first rodeo.

He was Speaker when legislators passed House Bill 2131, which aimed to change the default sentencing structure from consecutive to concurrent terms, expand eligibility for community sentencing and GPS monitoring programs, and limit the governor’s role in the parole process for nonviolent offenders.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law, but some of the changes met pushback from various officials, including former Tulsa County DA Tim Harris. Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued an opinion that part of the reforms pertaining to pardon and parole board operations were unconstitutional.

The following year, a reform package referred to as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative was shepherded through the legislature by Steele and signed into law by Fallin. Though JRI aimed to slow the growth of the state’s prison population and save hundreds of millions in future prison spending, certain parties and special interests soon began to gut the measure and actively work against it.

Though the reforms were based on recommendations of experts who had studied flaws in Oklahoma’s system and best practices in other states, records eventually released more than a year after they were requested by media outlets revealed the Governor’s Office and other leaders were concerned about appearing soft on crime.

In a discussion about whether Oklahoma should participate in a joint European-American prison project, the governor’s chief of staff Denise Northrup proclaimed: “My thought is why further tie ourselves to liberal corrections reforms groups?”

Justin Jones, the director of the Department of Corrections at the time, was told by executive branch officials not to attend a key meeting of the committee tasked with implementing the reforms.

Not long after, Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, co-chairmen of that committee, resigned their roles in frustration over what they said were attempts by the Governor’s Office to thwart progress.

As part of the package, Oklahoma had pursued a federal grant for implementation and increasing awareness of the new laws among state attorneys, law enforcement, judges and prosecutors.

Fallin’s office initially supported accepting the grant, but she later rescinded and announced state funds could be used instead.

“They said we didn’t need it, we had enough money … Oklahoma could pay for its own program,” Steele said in a 2014 Tulsa World interview examining the demise of the measure. “Well, that’s never happened.”

And in an email shortly before the working group dissolved, the governor’s former general counsel, Steve Mullins, suggested trying to sell the decision to turn down federal funds as a demonstration of fiscal thrift.

A report by Oklahoma Watch in 2013  also revealed that key actions that thwarted JRI’s progress appeared to occur shortly after Fallin’s staff met with representatives of the private prison industry, who also made campaign donations to Fallin and other leaders around the same time.

Only a handful of JRI’s proposed changes were implemented in slow, small steps in Oklahoma. The initiative called for drug and alcohol treatment and mental health evaluations to defer more people from prison and mandatory supervision for those leaving prison.

Inmates with technical violations of probation and parole were supposed to be sent to intermediate revocation facilities for a short time instead of back to prison for longer sentences. It was a tool designed to save money on prison spending, but few were using it.

In 2014, a Tulsa World report showed that in the law’s first year, only 19 men and 12 women were sentenced to intermediate sanctions for technical violations — meaning fewer than 2 percent of all men and 5 percent of all women being sent back to Oklahoma prison for technical violations in that period.

oklahoma state penitentiary 2
Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

It had been estimated that the Justice Reinvestment reforms could have saved Oklahoma up to $120 million over 10 years by limiting growth in the state’s prison population. Without the recommended changes, estimates showed that state spending on prisons would increase by more than a quarter billion dollars over the next decade.

Jones resigned his DOC post in 2013. His replacement, Robert Patton, expressed a commitment to following through on some of the reforms— but Patton’s term was soon complicated by the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014.

Patton’s tenure ended after it was revealed DOC used the wrong drug to execute inmate Charles Warner in 2015, and nearly again on death row inmate Richard Glossip this past fall. A grand jury investigation into the drug mix-up continues.

Patton resigned prior to testifying before the grand jury and took a position as a deputy warden at a private prison in Arizona run by the GEO Group.

One of Patton’s achievements during his time at DOC was to ease the backlog of inmates at county jails throughout the state, something that was costing DOC millions from its budget each year. But it resulted in the state’s prisons reaching over 120 percent capacity.

Anyone who’d read the studies behind Oklahoma’s JRI efforts wasn’t surprised.

According to a Council of State Governments report that initially examined how the reforms would benefit Oklahoma, Oklahoma’s prison population outpaced the state’s overall population growth from 2000 to 2010, while corrections appropriations rose more 30 percent over that decade.

Best practices

Other states, including Texas and North Carolina, have used their own Justice Reinvestment Initiatives to realize significant savings on corrections spending.

North Carolina’s reforms, passed in 2011, have helped the state close nine prisons and officials expect to save $560 million in averted costs and cumulative savings by 2017, according to the Council on State Governments.

Those savings have also made it possible for North Carolina to re-invest nearly $4 million into community-based treatment programs, the council reported.

After Texas officials implemented sentencing reforms in 2007, including probation, drug treatment, pre-trial diversion programs and intermediate sanction facilities, cost savings from the measures allowed Texas to close three existing prisons and scrap plans to build three new ones.

As Oklahoma has watched other states – including Texas — implement those reforms, the political climate surrounding criminal justice reform here has changed, Steele told The Frontier in an interview. Steele, who left office due to term limits, became the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma City.

“When we first started having this conversation in 2009 to 2011, our prisons were at 99 percent capacity. Now, they’re over 122 percent capacity,” he said. “The fact that the problem has not gone away — in fact, it’s gotten worse — causes us to be more willing to have this conversation.”

Does Oklahoma want to spend money incarcerating those who pose legitimate threats to public safety and society — or spend even more money incarcerating low-level, nonviolent offenders as well? Steele questioned.

Kris Steele speaks on Thursday, March 10, 2016, at Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Kris Steele visits with supporters and media after speaking on behalf of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform this past week in Tulsa. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“Are we using our resources in the most effective way possible?” Steele asked.

“I think the public is ready to have that conversation. I think the public is way ahead of the legislature on this issue. There’s actually a pretty significant disconnect between the voters and elected officials on this issue.”

Hence taking the issue to the voters through the two state questions.

And in 2016, the governor’s office appears to be embracing efforts at criminal justice reform. Last year, Fallin issued an executive order establishing a steering committee to develop a plan to reduce the prison population and improve public safety. Last month, she issued an executive order to “ban the box” that asks about felony convictions on state job applications.

Now several bills in the legislature aim to achieve similar goals of the two state questions backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice reform.

But Steele’s group wants to put the decision directly in the hands of voters. And he’s got the backing of organizations like Right on Crime and the ACLU of Oklahoma.

“It’s a little more work, but in the end we think it’s going to be well worth it,” he said. “The people of Oklahoma ought to be able to have a direct say so in this issue.”

It is the citizens who pay the $500 million each year to fund Oklahoma’s prison system, after all.

The Rev. Ray Owens, pastor of Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist Church, was one who offered an “amen” after Steele and Neal spoke to the crowd at Women in Recovery last week.

“Instead of investing more money in prisons, I believe it’s time for us to invest more in our people,” Owens said.

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Cary Aspinwall

Creative Director / Staff Writer

During more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, Cary has written about everything from reality TV stars to inmates on death row. She's twice been named Great Plains Writer of the Year and was recently honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. Contact: cary@readfrontier.com or 918-928-5835.
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