June 23, 2011

Oklahoma to Review Penal Policies

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State leaders announced today a bipartisan effort to develop new justice system policies that will hold offenders accountable while reducing corrections costs, according to a news release.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is a collaborative effort to improve Oklahoma’s public safety policies through research, collaboration and data analysis.

“This is about addressing crime in Oklahoma in a better way that we all know exists but have yet to specifically identify,” said House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. “Thirty-six states have seen violent crime rate reductions in recent years, but Oklahoma’s violent crime rate remains unacceptably high.”

Audio clip: Press Conference

Oklahoma also has the nation’s highest female incarceration rate and third highest male incarceration rate, which has resulted in the state’s prisons continually operating at unsustainable maximum capacity levels. The cost of the operating the state’s prison system has increased from $188 million in 1995 to more than $450 million.

Texas, Indiana and Kansas have also used the Justice Reinvestment Initiative method.

Gov. Mary Fallin said the bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Initiative will offer recommendations to the Legislature about how to improve public safety while better utilizing taxpayer dollars.

“It’s important to be smart on crime as well as tough on crime as we look for ways to reduce crime and protect public safety in Oklahoma,” Fallin said. “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative brings together a bipartisan group to study the legal system, and I look forward to reviewing their recommendations.”

This year, Fallin signed into law House Bill 2131, a major corrections policy reform measure authored by Steele that lawmakers say will divert more low-risk, nonviolent offenders from prison to community sentencing and lessen the governor’s role in the parole process.

Steele said in the release that HB 2131 laid the groundwork for the future reforms that lawmakers will make through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

“There has been bipartisan, statewide agreement that the course we are on is unsustainable, and the [Justice Reinvestment Initiative] effort is the next step in changing that course,” he said.

To guide the process, the state has established a group of state agency directors, legislative leaders and court officials. Steele and Don Millican, chairman of the Oklahoma Christian University Board of Trustees, are the group’s co-chairs.

Judges, district attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement officials, advocates for crime victims and community treatment providers will also be asked for suggestions, according to the release.

The group will work with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to conduct data analysis that will determine the effectiveness of existing public safety and corrections policies.

Working group member Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, said there will be great value in the comprehensive scope of the initiative.

“In 2010, 4,350 inmates were released with no supervision whatsoever and without regard to the risk they pose,” Rice said. “We need to conduct a review of our criminal justice system, from arrest through reentry, and determine where there are opportunities to improve how we do business.”

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative process will focus on three key areas: violent crime, to determine why Oklahoma’s violent crime rate remains high; offender supervision, to identify the type of offenders under supervision, the offenders’ progress and the effectiveness of the programs; and inmate populations, to determine the effects of an offender’s incarceration, inside and outside the prison. Additionally, the group will look at Oklahoma’s sentencing policies and how they affect prison growth, according to the release.

Justin Jones, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections director, said in the release that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process is a key part of ongoing efforts to reduce the strains overcrowded prisons have placed on the state’s budget and communities.

“The first step is for us to collect and analyze the data and fully understand our situation,” Jones said. “Once this is done we will be able to craft policy options that apply research and best practices to make the Oklahoma public safer and the criminal justice system more effective.”