Oklahoma prison reform loses favor, emails show

Recently released records indicate Gov. Mary Fallin was supportive of the initiative, but her staff was not.
Oklahoman Published: January 6, 2014
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Editor's Note: This story is the first of a two-part series based on reporting by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, and The Associated Press. Following up on Open Records requests made more than 14 months ago, reporters spent the last month reviewing 8,000 pages of documents obtained from Gov. Mary Fallin's office. This story will look at the status of the state Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and on Monday, experts will discuss whether it would be proper to overhaul Oklahoma's criminal code to reduce costs.

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 a 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 office held meetings without key players and also took a pass on federal money that could have been used to fund key parts of the law.

Emails obtained by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, and The Associated Press show that a Fallin aide expressed concern that President Barack Obama favored prison reform, too. The governor's chief of staff wrote in reply: “Lovely.”

Now that two of the reform's biggest advocates — former House Speaker Kris Steele and former Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones — are no longer in office, questions remain regarding where the law stands and what reforms, if any, are on track.

Oklahoma remains No. 1 in per capita incarceration of female inmates and No. 4 in male incarceration rates. The state is running out of space and money to house and staff its packed prison population.

According to the 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 the decade.

Thousands of pages of emails recently released by Fallin's administration, many months after they were originally requested by multiple news organizations, shed light on potential reasons the governor's office dropped prison reform efforts in 2013 like a hot potato.

“My thought is why further tie ourselves to liberal corrections reforms groups?” Chief of Staff Denise Northrup wrote in a discussion about whether Oklahoma should participate in a joint European-American prison project.

Reporters from the three media outlets found some Fallin staff members also emailed among themselves a Sooner Tea Party newsletter that derides JRI as “soft on crime.” Her staff members also shared a news story including remarks that Fallin's biggest fear in 2014 would be a challenge from the right.

Fallin is up for re-election this year. Tea party favorite Randy Brogdon announced Christmas Day he would challenge Fallin in June's GOP primary.

General Counsel Steve Mullins, who said he serves as the governor's lead policy adviser on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, maintains Fallin is fully supportive of the law and it is being implemented.

But several key provisions remain unfunded. The working group that had been charged with seeing the law through was largely dismantled after the two chairmen resigned out of frustration. The group hasn't met since early 2012.

And in an email shortly before the working group imploded, Mullins recommended a strategy of trying to sell a decision to turn down federal funds as a demonstration of fiscal thrift.

“I think this is the time we cut our losses,” Mullins states in the email in February 2013 to Assistant General Counsel Rebecca Frazier and Northrup, a longtime Fallin adviser.

Politics over policy?

Championed by Steele, a Republican from Shawnee, the law requires mandatory supervision for felons released from prison who were sentenced after the law took effect in 2012.

It created intermediary facilities for those who violate drug court regulations or conditions of probation and parole and required mental health and drug risk screenings for offenders.

The law also created a grant program controlled by the Attorney General's office for local law enforcement agencies to reduce violent crime.

But even that portion of the law isn't being carried out as originally intended, Steele said in an interview.

Fallin's fiscal year 2014 executive budget contained standstill funding for the Department of Corrections overall and didn't fund many of the reforms, including hiring additional probation and parole officers to lighten current staff's maxed-out caseloads.

“Her staff is much more concerned about the politics than the policy,” Steele said. “In order to get elected in Oklahoma you have to be quote-on-quote ‘tough on crime.'”

Steele said based on his conversations with her, Fallin initially was supportive of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. He believes it was Fallin's staff — chiefly Mullins and Northrup — who decided to change directions.

“In my personal experiences, when we were working on the law, I would personally call the governor on her cellphone and visit with her about the merits of it,” he said. “When I would explain the details and the rationale for working on meaningful justice reform, she would agree with me.”

Often, their conversations would take place outside business hours when her staff was not present, he said.

“Her staff would have changed her positions from the time we talked in the evening to the next morning,” Steele said.

From the start, Steele said, Fallin's staff “were anything but supportive” of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

The emails show a clear concern by Fallin's staff about Steele communicating with the governor directly regarding the law, monitoring when he called her and a general dismay over his continued championing of the law.

Regarding a media request for an interview on where the reforms stood, Fallin's spokesman Alex Weintz states in an email to other staffers: “I think it's really important that we have someone representing our side of the story or the whole thing will be about Kris Steele.”

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