Six weeks after the leaders of a prison reform board resigned, Oklahoma's top elected officials are moving forward on the reforms without them.
Nearly $3.5 million is available to implement the Justice Reinvestment Act in the state budget agreement announced Wednesday — a million of which will allow Department of Corrections to ramp up the number of probation and parole officers for the first time in years.
What former House Speaker Kris Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater lamented as dead on arrival in March appears now to be trudging along again — albeit in much smaller scope than either of the men envisioned.
“There is absolutely no evidence that we are not going down a road full-bore — the only evidence you have is we didn't ask for federal assistance on training only,” said Steve Mullins, general counsel to Gov. Mary Fallin.
Prater and Steele quit the board at the same meeting in which Mullins announced the governor's office would not pursue nearly $400,000 in federal training grants to begin implementing the reform act.
Signed into law last year, the act seeks to stymie a staggering growth rate in the number of incarcerated people in Oklahoma by developing diversionary programs, monitoring better those released from prison and reinforcing law enforcement activity in the most violent parts of the state.
With about 26,000 people behind bars now, Oklahoma consistently ranks in the top five for per-capita incarceration and leads the nation in the rate of female incarceration.
Rob Johnson, who leads the Senate's public safety subcommittee, said he approved the $3.5 million in appropriations, but he did so begrudgingly because the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, he said, is too soft on crime.
“I also believe that now that we have it we are obligated to fund it,” Johnson, R-Yukon, said, adding that with Steele no longer in the House there is hardly anyone championing the cause.
About $3.7 million was appropriated for the initiative for the eight months between the law's effective date last November and the end of the current fiscal year.
New funding plan
The new appropriation plan keeps in line with that basic structure.
Pruitt's office will receive again $2 million for a law enforcement grant program, but the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse will receive $333,000 — half its current funding level — to fund presentencing mental health and substance abuse screenings.
Mental Health Department spokesman Jeffrey Dismukes said about 200 people in 17 counties have undergone such screening since November.
The Corrections Department will spend its $1 million on personnel, said Jerry Massie, the department's spokesman.
With about 240 probation and parole officers on the department's payroll, only about half the inmates released from state prisons are supervised currently, Massie said.
The new funding will allow the department to hire about a third of the 54 probation and parole officers it needs.
“Part of it would be to fill existing vacancies, but also we would target them … in terms of impacting the most population and stuff,” Massie said.
Mental health also will receive nearly $100,000 in appropriations to help train its employees to conduct the screening.
That represents about a quarter of the federal funding Steele and Prater's group had requested.
Fallin's spokesman, Alex Weintz, said the governor will continue to support the Justice Reinvestment Initiative that she signed into law last year, just not the way Steele and Prater would like.
A bill is more than likely headed to her desk in the next week that would replace their stakeholders group with one composed of members appointed by herself, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and House Speaker T.W. Shannon.