Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and former House Speaker Kris Steele abruptly quit Thursday morning as chairmen of a group working to make the state's criminal justice system more efficient.
Prater and Steele, who had served as chairmen of the state's Justice Reinvestment Initiative working group since last year, made the announcement following an emotionally charged meeting at the state Supreme Court building.
Both men were upset with the decision by Gov. Mary Fallin to refuse nearly $400,000 in federal funds, which would have been used to help train those responsible for implementing the reforms in Oklahoma.
They were also upset with legislation to create a politically appointed panel to take over the work of their nonpartisan committee.
Steele, who served in the state House of Representatives for 12 years, had to compose himself at the end of Thursday's meeting.
For the past two years he has been leading the group, which backs plans to redirect nonviolent offenders toward treatment instead of jail and better supervise released prisoners. This is all part of an effort to reduce the state's growing and costly prison population.
“It's a good policy,” Steele said at the close of Thursday's meeting. “But I can tell you, for the people that I respect and admire in this room, I cannot in good conscience ask you to continue to serve on this committee knowing that there's this other committee that's going to be utilized to oversee implementation of JRI.”
Prater, who announced he would no longer chair the group's meetings at close of Thursday's session, also became emotional during a back-and-forth exchange with Fallin's general counsel, Steve Mullins.
“This is going in a different direction,” Prater said. “The words I hear coming out of the mouths of representatives of the governor's office are inconsistent with their actions behind the scenes.”
Mullins said the Fallin administration's decision to refuse the federal funding, which would have come in the form of a grant from the Council of State Governments, was based on a “policy decision on how the state seeks money from the federal government.”
“There are certain appropriate places for the state to go and seek federal funding,” Mullins said. “There are some times when we are going to hold the federal government accountable for what they're responsible for. That situation isn't present here.”
The announcement made by Prater and Steele closely followed the passage of House Bill 2042, a bill that calls for the creation of a formal body within the state government to implement and oversee the Oklahoma Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
“As of now, there is no formal governmental group who has been legally tasked with implementing this plan and making it work,” Fallin said Thursday in a prepared statement. “The members of the working group are well-intentioned and committed to JRI ... however, they are an informal, extragovernmental group with limited access to the ... agencies tasked with this important reform effort.”
Steele said the $377,000 in federal funds would have been used to help train judges, lawyers and others involved in criminal justice system as the state works to implement the reforms.
During Thursday's meeting, an official with Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said the agency recently spent $20,000 to train its employees how to perform evaluations in accordance with the reforms that took effect in November.
“Instead of using the grant money to pay for the training, we're having to use appropriated dollars for direct services,” Steele said.
“So, we're taking away from direct services because we've turned down this money.”