Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin “did not endorse” the department of corrections’ plan to begin the “supervised release” of some prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes, her press secretary told The Frontier.
Last week Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials announced they were implementing a program in which some nonviolent offenders with less than 18 months left on their sentences and who met a number of other criteria would be considered for release. The program was touted as a way to ease the burden on a corrections system bursting at the seams population-wise, but was immediately met with pushback.
Within hours of the plan’s announcement, Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, issued a press release calling the program “reckless” and urging Fallin to ask DOC to reconsider the plan. Biggs has previously fought other justice reform measures, though he has said he is in favor of what he calls “sensible” reforms.
Neither Fallin nor her office immediately responded to the squabble between Biggs and DOC Director Joe Allbaugh, and it’s unclear what she could have done anyway. The program allows DOC to lower overpopulation without relying on law changes or a public vote.
But while Fallin has advocated for criminal justice reform in the past — including last month at a public symposium in Oklahoma City — that doesn’t mean she’s necessarily a fan of DOC’s new program.
“The governor’s staff met with the Department of Corrections and expressed their concerns about the proposal,” Michael McNutt, Fallin’s press secretary, said in a statement to The Frontier. “The governor’s office certainly did not endorse the plan, but recognizes it to be a reaction to the challenges DOC faces in regard to managing the growing inmate population, which is at 109 percent capacity, and the lack of sufficient funding.”
The program will still be carried out by DOC despite Fallin’s non-commitment.
Allbaugh said in a release last week that the state’s prison system currently had more than 63,000 “individuals in its care,” though that figure includes 34,877 who are already on some form of non-incarcerated supervision. Prison figures showed 26,871 inmates in DOC custody as of last week.
In any case, the 63,171 inmates either incarcerated or under supervision represents a rising tide — less than a year ago Allbaugh lamented in a press release that the prison system had just reached a record high of 61,000.
Also of note — DOC remains shorthanded on probation and parole officers, with around 270 officers monitoring more than 34,000 offenders, Allbaugh said.
Fallin’s history with criminal justice reform
Last month, during a public event discussing Oklahoma’s rising rate of female incarceration, Fallin took the stage and declared herself a friend of criminal justice reform.
She said critics often claimed it was impossible to be both a conservative and to be in favor of lessening punishments for some nonviolent offenses.
“But look at me,” she told the event host, to applause.
During Fallin’s first term as governor, she signed into law a bill pushed by then House Speaker Kris Steele known as the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative.” Aimed in part at creating treatment facilities to divert drug offenders from prison, the JRI plan also resulted in a grant program maintained by the state’s attorney general’s office.
That grant money was supposed to be earmarked for law enforcement agencies to help combat violent crime.
Fallin signed the bill into law in 2012, but it was never fully-funded and by 2013 Steele had resigned from the group overseeing the JRI implementation, citing frustration with Fallin.
As for the AG’s grant program, titled “Safe Oklahoma,” the money was — and still is — dispersed to law enforcement agencies across the state. A Frontier investigation found that some of the agencies, like the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, used the money to help fund a drug task force. Rather than divert drug offenders from prison, TCSO’s undercover task force appeared to be targeting some low-level drug users.
That task force was created under former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, but was discontinued by Sheriff Vic Regalado.
When Fallin was re-elected in 2014, she again stated criminal justice reform as a priority for her administration, though change was slow to come. Last year Oklahoma voters took matters into their own hands, overwhelmingly supporting two state questions which changed certain felony crime definitions.
State Question 780 reclassified drug possession as a misdemeanor and SQ 781 created a fund that would collect savings generated by SQ 780 with the idea of using them later to create treatment and diversion programs.
About 24 percent of the 1,400 prisoners who have been identified for potential screening for the program are currently incarcerated for crimes that were made misdemeanors under SQ 780, according to DoC’s Dr. Laura Pitman.
After the two state questions passed, Fallin issued a press release saying the vote reflected “a fundamental change in the way our state understands and treats drug addiction, a disease that has destroyed too many of our families. This is a great step.”
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