POSTED ON OCTOBER 24, 2012:
Good politics trumps good public policy again
Gov. Mary Fallin has done it again!
Our state's chief executive last week abruptly jettisoned her long-held, eminently sensible position on an important public policy matter because ... well ... your guess is as good as mine.
The latest flip-flop is on State Question 762, the proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the governor from the parole process for non-violent offenders.
Believe it or not, Fallin signed legislation in 2011 aimed at accomplishing that goal. But it turned out the fix couldn't be made legislatively -- only by changing the state constitution.
So this year's Legislature ordered the proposed amendment be placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. And Fallin offered her hearty, unqualified endorsement.
Until she didn't.
"It appears State Question 762 would define nonviolent offenders only by their current offense and would not mandate the consideration of past violent behavior," the governor said.
"Since taking office, I have denied parole for 437 offenders who would be considered non-violent under the terms of State Question 762, keeping them off our streets and out of our communities."
So, 20 days before the election, we are to believe that Fallin has become so troubled by the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment -- which hasn't changed in months -- that she can no longer support it?
Sorry, this doesn't pass the smell test.
No other state but Oklahoma requires the governor to review all non-violent paroles. Why? It thrusts politics into what should be a judicial-type decision and ends up unnecessarily costing the taxpayers a fortune.
Governors are political animals. All live in constant fear they will be the one to release the next Willie Horton, the Massachusetts felon who failed to return from a weekend furlough and instead went on a crime spree in Maryland that included armed robbery and rape. The incident doomed former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' 1988 White House bid.
Maybe Fallin considers the governorship to be her final station in political life, but I doubt it. Oklahoma's two U.S. Senate seats probably will open up before too long -- Tom Coburn has pledged to term-limit himself and Jim Inhofe is nearly an octogenarian.
Even if her only goal is re-election in two years, she isn't about to unnecessarily risk her 65 percent approval rating -- certainly not for some convict who may or may not make it on the outside.
In Oklahoma, there are few things worse for a sitting governor -- or almost any elected official, for that matter -- than to be considered soft on crime.
That's what makes Fallin's reversal on State Question 762 so troubling.
Sure, it's good politics, but it isn't good public policy. And sadly, these days, good politics all too often trumps good public policy ... which contributes to increasing cynicism, doubt and despair among the electorate.
State Question 762, you see, was a centerpiece of House Speaker Kris Steele's Smart on Crime initiative. Oklahoma is being bankrupted, in part, by a senseless lock-em-up and throw-away-the-key mentality that's made us No. 1 per capita in women behind bars and No. 4 in men.
Worse, we're not any safer. In fact, we're arguably less safe. Other states -- including Texas -- that enacted smart on crime initiatives have seen declines in their violent crime rates and massive savings that could be invested in core public services such as education and highways.
Approving State Question 762 would get non-violent offenders out of the costly warehouse -- it costs roughly $16,000 a year to incarcerate someone in Oklahoma -- and into cost-effective community-based supervision where they can be monitored while working to put their lives back together.
"This was good policy when the governor signed it into law last year, and it remains so today," the speaker said, in response to Fallin's reversal. "All the facts show that a vote for SQ 762 creates a stronger, more effective criminal justice system."
Added the Senate's sponsor of State Question 762, Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate: "Approving this state question is consistent with our shared desire to improve public safety and create a more effective, efficient government.
"Focusing the governor's parole responsibilities solely on violent offenders will save tens of millions of dollars currently lost to nonviolent parole delays that can instead be used for initiatives that truly reduce and prevent crime."
In my view, the fate of State Question 762 has been in jeopardy since mid-summer when the state Pardon and Parole Board -- which would become the sole arbiter on granting non-violent paroles -- was accused of violating the state's Open Meetings act.
The dust-up involved the board's creation of a special "early consideration" list of inmates. State prosecutors went ballistic when they learned of the practice.
The board has changed its practices, but it was all opponents of State Question 762 needed to create doubt about the wisdom of removing the governor from the process.
Who would be opposed to something that criminal justice experts agree is vital? Those who have a vested interest in the status quo.
It is not unusual for thinking people to change their minds on important matters when confronted with new information that alters their perspective. Nor should someone automatically be condemned for reversing field.
But Fallin is yet to make a persuasive case that her change of heart is anything more than a politically expedient flip-flop -- just like when the Tea Partiers demanded the state not accept a $54 million federal grant to help set up a health insurance exchange.
If Fallin keeps getting whipsawed like this, she'll be searching soon for a good chiropractor.
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