Patrick B. McGuigan
House Bill 3052, intended to enact a “justice reinvestment initiative” to save Oklahoma taxpayer resources while strengthening accountability in the criminal justice system, cleared the House Appropriations & Budget Committee Monday afternoon (February 27).
The measure advanced with a comfortable 10-2 bipartisan “do pass” majority. State Rep. Earl Sears of Bartlesville chaired the committee hearing.
Earlier in the day, a range of law enforcement leaders had endorsed House Speaker Kris Steele’s legislation.
Participating in the gathering of supporters were Justin Jones, director of the state Department of Corrections, Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, and Terri White, Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (who on March 1 takes on additional duties as acting administrator at the Department of Human Services).
Several uniformed corrections and other officers joined the event in the state Capitol Blue Room. Joining Steele were legislative colleagues, including Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, and Reps. Lisa Billy of Lindsay and Pat Ownbey of Ardmore, all Republicans.
Robert Coombs of the Council of State Governments (CSG), the national organization which worked with Steele and other state officials on development of the reform program tailored to Oklahoma’s needs, also spoke at the morning event.
Coombs met throughout the day with legislators, including a session with Minority Leader Scott Inman and members of the Democratic caucus. Inman was part of the JRI working group and has been supportive of reforms envisioned in the speaker's new bill.
At the afternoon hearing, Steele spoke first on a crowded A&B Committee docket, but presentation of the bill took just a few moments.
At the morning press briefing, Steele outlined the measure’s key provisions, including “getting law enforcement the resources they need to do their job,” having enough secure beds to keep violent offenders in prison, post-incarceration of released felons for at least nine months, an increase in mental health crisis beds, and other provisions.
Jones, of the Corrections agency, said the critique of Oklahoma’s system and recommended reforms in the final JRI reform amounted to “in all of my 35 years of involvement in these issues, without hesitation … the most in-depth analysis, a scientific and professional analysis. My respect goes out to the statewide working group. The town hall meetings were an excellent way to get the focus on the local level. I respect every part of this.”
In brief remarks, Coombs affirmed, “Oklahoma has had tremendous leadership; they’ve taken a true comprehensive approach to public safety. At the [CSG] Justice Center we took the experience from other states, and nationally, then tailored the work to Oklahoma. This will stand the test of the real world.”
Coombs said passage of reforms is one thing, implementation yet another. He said, “There will be more than $200 million of increased spending unless the policies of the past are reversed.”
The measure includes an initial appropriation of no more than $6 million, Steele said. As he has detailed previously, the intention is to “reinvest” some avoided costs. The $260 million he anticipates in additional prison cost without reform amounts to an unsustainable figure, Steele has argued.
The Steele plan envisions spending perhaps $110 million on various programs instead of on several thousand new prison beds. Steele said the state can “bend the curve” of increased costs – seeing roughly a 2 percent growth in prison population with reform, versus a 9 percent jump without it.
White told CapitolBeatOK she was strongly supportive of the envisioned five new “crisis units” of 16 beds each, for those arrested needing mental health intervention rather than jail time. Governor Fallin included a proposal for the first such unit in her budget, and White said she is hopeful to get at least the first such unit through this year's appropriations process.
In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Coombs said Texas is a great case study of the potential savings and positive impact for the state. Because of its large prison system and complex criminal justice structure, the Lone Star State was able “to make the transformation quickly, to impact statistics quicker.” Texas reforms began in the 2005-06 era, and were led by a team of conservative lawmakers, with support from Governor Rick Perry.
Coombs and Steele each said advocates of the plan do not take anything for granted. Still, Coombs said, “We believe the projections on impact are achievable. Yes, it is entirely possible that results can come more quickly than anticipated.”
Asked if he had the votes for passage on the floor, Steele said Monday’s endorsement from the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association was a crucial development. The Shawnee Republican credited Reps. Billy and Ownbey for encouraging support of the measure through education and communication to the House membership.
In its formal endorsement letter to legislators, the District Attorneys Association said H.B. 3052 “offers a net benefit to our state, and this Association supports its passage.”
A $40 million grant program would assist local law enforcement entities over the coming decade. The measure puts in place at least nine months of post-release supervision of all felons – reforming a status quo in which just over half of released convicts are set free without any form of oversight.
The measure also enacts reforms aimed at controlling prison population growth. A primary means to this end is to revise current policy for what are often dubbed “85 percent crimes,” the percentage referencing the portion of a sentence that must be served.
In practical effect, denial of “good time” credits until 85 percent is served has meant many prisoners with good behavior wind up serving 90 to 95 percent of time sentenced – preventing a “reward” for good behavior.
The new law would require nine months of post-release supervision of convicted felons, and allow use of the good time credits after the 85 percent threshold is reached during incarceration.
Corrections Director Justin Jones said, in prepared comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, “An offender’s behavior in prison is indicative of how they had behaved in the community. Providing evidence-based mandatory supervision and incentives to improve behavior in and outside of prison helps the public and offender. It enhances public safety and increases safety for correctional employees by fostering a better-behaved population in prisons.”
Oklahoma’s prison spending has leapt 30 percent in a decade, while crime rates have not declined. In all, $110 million of the anticipated savings would be “reinvested” in alternatives to incarceration and for other purposes.
The grant program would use $40 million of anticipated savings for a process, run by the state Attorney General’s office, to assist local law enforcement. This provision has drawn strong endorsement from local crime-fighting agencies feeling the stress of declines in federal law enforcement aid.
In discussion with reporters, Chief Citty said his work with the reform effort had convinced him, “If you reduce the prison population and do it right, you make the system better. On my side, I believe that Speaker Steele and the staff up here did a good job of engaging law enforcement in addressing the issue of costly prisons. There are better ways of doing things and this research is proving that. With law enforcement from all over the state involved, I believe things can get better.”
He hailed the grant provisions, observing, “Funding is dwindling, or at least hard to come by. We need beds for people who need services, but who don’t need to be in jail, or in prison.”
In his prepared comments, Citty said, “The proposed grants would give us the tools we need to proactively root out the worst of the worst criminals out there and make our streets safer. I believe all local law enforcement agencies – big and small – stand to benefit greatly from this proposal. Police departments everywhere have had significant success with this type of hot-spot policing, but it requires resources we often don’t have.”
Throughout the JRI process, Steele has stressed the dysfunction of releasing prisoners without post-sentence supervision: “Effective supervision deters offenders from returning to a life of crime. It’s a critical component of crime fighting – particularly during those first few months immediately after an inmate is released.”
According to yesterday's release from supporters, the new provisions “would also impose faster, stricter sanctions on felons who commit technical violations of their probation programs. Technical violations are violations of the terms and conditions of probation, such as curfew violations, positive drug tests, failure to attend treatment or other issues.
“Upon a first time technical violation, an offender would immediately be sent to an intermediate revocation facility where they would undergo extensive treatment programs for six months in order to address substance abuse and behavioral issues. Offenders who have shown a propensity for violence would go to prison rather than an intermediate revocation facility.”
Steele said, “This swift, certain sanction still holds technical violators accountable and produces better results than the current practice of sending violators back to prison for two years in all cases.”
Steele’s comments also focused on the state’s current shortage of mental health beds, “forcing police officers to drive mental health patients to available beds hundreds of miles away.”
The first-year proposal for one mental health center as an alternative to incarceration, contained in H.B. 3052 is one of the measure’s most significant provisions, according to White and Bixby Police Chief Ike Shirley. Chief Shirley said, “Anything we can do to get more of these mental health beds in communities statewide is going to help law enforcement immensely.”
In his formal remarks about the bill, Steele said, “Backing up our police officers and prosecutors and keeping track of felons is critical to reducing crime. There is broad based law enforcement support for this bill because it helps them do what they do best: Fight crime and keep us safe. We’re thrilled to have law enforcement’s support and, in turn, to support them.”
Note: Photographs provided to CapitolBeatOK by Aran Coleman