, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 14, 2013

Oklahoma justice working group chairs resign

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The two leaders of a committee overseeing the state's plan to lower Oklahoma's prison population and violent-crime rate abruptly resigned on Thursday, a day after lawmakers approved legislation backed by Gov. Mary Fallin that they believe sharply undercuts the panel's involvement.

Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater resigned as co-chairmen of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative working group during its monthly meeting. The group was formed last year with the governor's approval to oversee the plan's implementation, and it includes legislators, law enforcement leaders and officials from the Department of Corrections and other state agencies.

Both men said they could no longer ask other members to continue serving, pointing to what they said were underhanded attempts by Fallin to kill the plan she approved last year. That includes the House's approval on Wednesday of a bill supported by Fallin that creates a politically appointed panel to replace their committee. Also, the Legislature hasn't yet funded the plan, which outlines ways to keep non-violent offenders out of prison and other programs.

"When I see anyone, including the governor's office, playing games with public safety and the safety of our citizens, I get very angry about it," Prater told The Associated Press after the meeting. "I will say that the governor's office has been trying to kill this initiative. Now, since they have complete control over the working group, they will succeed."

Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the Republican governor's record shows she supports the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, dubbed the JRI.

"The governor campaigned on JRI and smart crime initiatives," Weintz said. "We are currently pushing for a bill to create a new JRI committee that has more authority and more involvement in implementation."

Last year while House speaker, Steele championed the effort. It began as a collaboration with the Council of State Governments Justice Center and other groups to reduce the strain on Oklahoma's overfilled justice system. The final proposal, signed by Fallin last May, aimed to redirect nonviolent offenders toward treatment instead of jail, prevent re-offending by supervising released prisoners and, ultimately, lower the state's persistently high crime rate and save taxpayer money.

But a budget-conscious Legislature has not yet funded the plan, and last month Fallin rejected federal money meant to pay for the initiative's training, saying the state could pay for it alone. Steele disputed that the state could pay for it and pegged the amount lost at more than $300,000.

"We're talking about bringing the various groups together," he said in an interview Thursday. "It's not just the dollar amount. It's the expertise that goes along with the dollar amount."

The plan has brought its own internal frustrations, which were on display during the working group's meeting Thursday.

Members reported that a $2 million grant program to support local law enforcement had received just two applications since January; however, the program hasn't been funded yet. Another program to reroute people who violate parole to treatment instead of jail has only a few dozen candidates, hampered by sentencing documents that take weeks to arrive at jails. And a mental health and substance abuse screening program has diverted less than two dozen people from jail time.

Steve Mullins, Fallin's general counsel, told the committee they didn't have the power to fix those problems and a political committee would.

"We love this group. This group is wonderful," he said, to tittering from around the room. "But to simply say that this committee can achieve those outcomes is misleading. This committee cannot."

Steele sharply disagreed, saying the committee was meant to foster communication and troubleshooting that a political committee couldn't match.

"That's what this committee is for, and it requires that sort of multiple-disciplinary discussion and representation to figure out these issues," he said. "My greatest hope would be that the governor and the various state leaders do follow through and that this initiative is implemented."


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