POSTED ON JULY 6, 2011:
Penal reform won't be released from lock-up
Are Oklahoma's top elected leaders really serious this time?
Really serious about giving up the electorally pleasing tough-on-crime mantra? Really serious about becoming smart-on-crime? Really serious about reducing Oklahoma's lockup rates -- first per capita nationally in women, fifth in men?
I have no doubt House Speaker Kris Steele is serious. I'm not yet convinced about the other 148 lawmakers -- at least, not enough of them to ensure significant penal reform becomes a reality.
What too many legislators fail to grasp is the state's lock-'em-up and throw-away-the-key approach to crime is costing us dearly, imperiling other vital state services -- think education, roads and child welfare, just to name three -- in these lean budget times.
Even worse, it's not working: We're locking folks up as fast as we can for almost any imaginable offense, yet our violent crime rate continues to climb.
Steele's latest initiative -- embraced by Gov. Mary Fallin and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman -- is the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a state-national task force aimed at taking politics out of the criminal justice crisis and developing real solutions based on hard data.
"Our current path," the speaker said simply, "is unsustainable."
He's correct: The state is spending 41 percent more on corrections than it did a decade ago, thanks largely to a prison population that had swollen to 25,390 as of May. Even so, the mushrooming budget leaves Oklahoma in the bottom tier in per capita inmate spending.
Steele shepherded an excellent first reform step through the 2011 Legislature, a package aimed at reducing the state's ridiculously high number of inmates by diverting low-risk convicts into less expensive community-based treatment and by reducing the governor's role in the parole process.
But if past is prologue -- which it so often is in politics -- Steele's grand plans are anything but a slam dunk, even if he ostensibly wields the biggest gavel in the House.
Let's just consider the last five years: The state's criminal justice crisis didn't materialize overnight. And it didn't just come to the attention of legislative leaders and the governor. It's been brewing for three decades, an inconvenient fact for tough-on-crime Republicans rising to state government power.
Oklahoma's non-partisan Criminal Justice Resource Center and its director, K.C. Moon, long warned of the looming crisis, but most lawmakers paid little heed. Even worse, they targeted Moon and the agency for oblivion -- a variation of the old strategy if you can't refute the message, kill the messenger.
As Republicans seized control of the state House (2004 election) and Senate (2008), Moon's truth telling was unwelcome. He resigned under pressure and the Criminal Justice Resource Center was de-funded, its tasks divided between the attorney general and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
As cover for this injustice, then-GOP House Speaker Lance Cargill and then-co-Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee (with acquiescence of Democratic co-Pro Tem Mike Morgan) demanded a performance audit of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Republicans chose the auditor -- Tallahassee, Fla.-based MGT of America Inc. -- undoubtedly expecting the analysis to confirm their preconceived notions that Oklahoma's correctional system was rife with waste, graft and corruption, a money pit that would be better served by private prisons (operated by outfits known to lavish campaign contributions on elected powers-that-be).
Six months and $844,000 of the taxpayers' money later, MGT simply reinforced the message that panel experts -- like K.C. Moon -- had delivered repeatedly to lawmakers: The state's prison system is lean, mostly well managed and grossly underfunded.
In fact, MGT recommended spending at least $30 million more annually to get the system where it needed to be.
You can imagine what happened to that report. It was released late on a Friday afternoon, at the end of a holiday week in 2008 -- a near-perfect time slot to ensure the fewest Oklahomans would take note, what with some still traveling and others gearing up for a return to work or school.
Cargill and Coffee, now the Secretary of State, ran for cover, offering perfunctory statements -- "It's an example of good government," Cargill opined -- then disappearing.
Where did MGT's recommendations end up? File 13. The trash can.
The same year, the Oklahoma Academy focused on the state's criminal justice crisis, mulling the question: Can we be just as tough, but twice as smart?
What happened to the report developed by the state's brightest minds? File 13. The trash can.
The point is: we've studied this issue to death. That is why the public collectively rolls its eyes every time a new state task force is unveiled -- if they even take note of it.
Task forces are the Legislature's time-honored way of jettisoning an issue they don't want to tackle. The scheme goes like this: Form a task force. Announce it publicly. Argue that it's only prudent to study the matter further. Promise that solutions will be devised and presented for consideration in the next legislative session. Then forget about it. Problem solved!
The difference this time is Steele. He clearly is committed to this issue, and speakers tend to get more of what they want than most House members. "It will be a top priority for me," he said at last month's Capitol unveiling of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
But there's reason to fear that Steele's admirable dream won't ever become a reality, at least not during his tenure. Next year is Steele's final session. Term limits dictate he can't seek re-election. The initiative he helped launch typically required 18 months to be completed in other states. He only has seven months until the Legislature reconvenes in February -- and then only four months more to convince a majority of his 100 House and 48 Senate colleagues to embrace his vision.
This from a crew of lawmakers that continued to expand the number of mandatory sentences in the most recent session -- despite the speaker's best efforts to explain that sending more people to prison for longer terms may sound like good, tough public policy, but it's actually fiscal lunacy and doesn't help reduce crime.
Maybe Steele will get his signature reform package. Maybe it won't happen until long after he leaves office. Maybe it will only occur if a federal judge orders it -- it wouldn't be the first time that's happened in Oklahoma history.
Maybe we can dream big dreams along with Steele. Maybe our elected leaders will decide to do the right thing -- lead -- on an issue that is, sadly, far too easy to demagogue. Maybe elephants really will fly.
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A40697