Chief Brody sized up the situation and spat out a Hollywood one-liner that's buoyed many a reference joke over the years: “You're gonna need a bigger boat.” This was scripted in “Jaws.”
What's eating Oklahoma today is that “prison reform” has been heavy on the prison and light on the reform. We're gonna need a bigger jail.
The latest reform effort was the 2012 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). Last week, two men leading the effort walked off the set over frustration with continued inertia in prison reform. JRI is a proposal to help reduce violent crime and ease prison overcrowding by putting more money into crime prevention and prison avoidance and less into warehousing convicts.
Kris Steele, the former Republican Oklahoma House speaker, and David Prater, the Democratic Oklahoma County district attorney, sized up the situation and concluded that the anti-reform sharks are still circling in the water.
Steele and Prater abruptly quit as co-chairman of a JRI working group. This followed Gov. Mary Fallin's refusal to take $400,000 in federal funds that could have helped train people to implement the reforms. Pending legislation would politicize the implementation. Although Steele is a former politician and Prater a current one, they took a thoughtful, non-partisan approach to reform.
The fins of change affecting JRI are part of a long effort to stifle reform under the guise of not being soft on crime. Mandatory minimum sentences, pushing all parole decisions to the governor's desk, criminalizing behavior that's best handled with treatment rather than incarceration – these are components of a corrections system with an insatiable appetite.
The system fattened in the days when Democrats steered the boat; today, Republicans are at the helm. Perhaps it's not yet time to close the beaches on JRI. But it looks as if our paraphrase of Chief Brody's line is apt.
Prison reform in Oklahoma isn't seaworthy. It's flotsam.