MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 8, 2013

Effort to cut state’s prison population slows

Legislators working instead to extend felony list

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – The recent momentum to reduce Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate has fizzled out, officials said this week.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, signed by Gov. Mary Fallin last May, aimed to encourage rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, lessen the emphasis on prison time and supervise prisoners after release, among other provisions. All were meant to prevent repeat offending, make the state safer and let the steam out of a strained corrections system.

But the political momentum behind the initiative has slowed. Last week, less than a year after signing the bipartisan law, Fallin rejected federal funding to start the program. Additionally, a grant program from the attorney general to local law enforcement hasn’t been started and legislators are considering about 10 bills that would increase prison time or create new felonies.

“I’m sort of scratching my head,” Kris Steele, who championed the initiative as the House speaker before he met his term limit, said.

Oklahoma had the nation’s fifth-highest incarceration rate in 2011, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Roughly one out of every 100 Oklahoma males was in jail at that time. Now, state prisons are full, with 26,000 inmates.

The Department of Corrections annual budget has topped $460 million, surpassed only by the funding for education and human services. The department warned in January it couldn’t take any more transfers from county jails unless it received more than $6 million immediately. The future remains unclear for that request and another for more than $60 million in additional funding next fiscal year.

In her executive budget, Fallin called for a $1 million increase for the coming fiscal year. Calls to Fallin’s office were not immediately returned Friday. But when Fallin rejected federal assistance for justice reinvestment training last week, a spokeswoman said the state would fund the training on its own.

Steele said the reinvestment plan has worked elsewhere, noting Texas tried a similar plan several years ago and was able to close a prison because of the drop in prisoners.

The Oklahoma Legislature continues to consider more and harsher penalties. This week, the Senate approved a bill to criminalize the plotting of a mass attack, such as a school shooting. Another bill would make damaging fences used for agriculture a felony. A proposal passed by the House creates a new felony specifically for assaulting a Department of Human Services worker.

“All of them will pass because no one wants to be viewed as soft on crime,” said Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, who has voiced concerns with some of the felony proposals.

“We’re adding felonies every year,” she said, pointing to private prison interests, which have a stake in being full, as a possible culprit. “We’ve got to figure out where the happy medium is.”

The average prison sentence in Oklahoma has almost doubled in length in the past two decades, according to the Pew Center on the States. Proponents say harsher penalties deter crime and eventually lower prison populations.

But research doesn’t show harsher and longer sentences decrease crime, said Todd Clear, a professor of corrections policy and dean of the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.

“The irony is the number of people in prison has very little to do with the crime rate,” Clear said, noting that national crime rates have held steady since the 1970s while incarceration has jumped five-fold.

Steele, the former House Speaker, pointed to Oklahoma’s violent crime rates, which have remained steady during the past decade – even with the state’s high incarceration rates – while rates in most other states have fallen dramatically.

“The question is, what are we doing to address this concern if not justice reinvestment?” he said. “What’s the plan?”

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