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Prison reform proves difficult for Oklahoma politicians

Oklahoman Published: January 6, 2014

Editor's Note: This story is the second 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. Sunday's story looked at the status of the state Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and today, experts discuss whether it would be proper to overhaul Oklahoma's criminal code to reduce costs.

When Republican Ged Wright was first elected to the Oklahoma Senate in the 1980s, he thought the 8,000 inmates and $100 million annual price tag for the state's prison system were too much.

Fast-forwarding 25 years over a career that also included stints as a member of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission and the Board of Corrections, Wright has seen Oklahoma's prison population explode to nearly 27,000 inmates and the state's corrections budget approach a half-billion dollars each year.

Oklahoma legislators in 2012 passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, intended to trim the state's costs through a leaner Department of Corrections, while still providing critical services to inmates. The JRI-related documents obtained from Gov. Mary Fallin revealed her administration at times undermined the initiative, much of which remains undone or unfunded.

But even if all the JRI initiatives had been fully implemented, the package of reforms was only designed to curb inmate growth, not stop it. Many contend any real progress on inmate growth won't be achieved without a complete overhaul of the state's harsh criminal sentencing codes, a major political challenge in a conservative state with a tough-on-crime reputation that predates statehood.

Of the state's $7.1 billion budget this year, the Department of Corrections consumed more than $460 million, an amount most experts say is woefully inadequate to run crumbling prisons bursting at the seams with mostly nonviolent offenders.

Prison guards, whose pay starts at $11.83 per hour, work mandatory 60-hour work weeks at about half of the state's 17 prisons, where staffing ratios of officers to offenders are among the worst in the nation and veteran guards say morale is at an all-time low.

“Nobody's old enough in the Legislature, practically, to remember McAlester in the early 1970s,” Wright said, referring to a three-day prison riot at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in the summer of 1973 that left three inmates dead, more than 20 guards and inmates injured and a dozen buildings burned to the ground. “We've got the potential for that again.

“There's a train wreck coming around the corner.”

Prison officials have been warning the Legislature and elected leaders in Oklahoma for the past two decades about a growing crisis in the state's prison system, but little has been done to stem the increasing tide of inmates.

Pushed hard by former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, a soft-spoken minister, the JRI initiative was designed to improve public safety in part by diverting some nonviolent offenders from prison through treatment and monitoring, freeing up funding for targeted policing, and eventually saving the state millions.

But some of the significant reforms in the package were gutted in the Legislature, and emails among Fallin's top aides suggest enthusiasm from the governor's office quickly waned as Steele's term in the Legislature neared an end.

Fallin's General Counsel Steve Mullins, the governor's lead policy adviser on corrections, maintains Fallin fully supports the new law and its implementation, as well as additional reforms aimed at improving the state's correctional system.

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