Oklahoma’s Insane Opposition to Prison Reform

Oklahoma’s legislature voted to reduce the state’s skyrocketing, budget-busting prison population, but ideological state officials are trying to make sure it doesn’t happen.

What do you get in Oklahoma when you mix visceral disdain for President Obama, instinctual loathing for prison reform advocates, and an unrestrained fear of a Tea Party insurgency? You get the quick demise of a perfectly sensible series of laws designed to help save taxpayer money by easing the state’s burgeoning prison crisis. You get a craven political calculation that will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade—and more importantly will fail to stop its over-the-top cycle of incarceration. You get the very essence of bad governance.

Earlier this week, a media project jointly produced by the Associated Press, The Tulsa World, and The Oklahoman revealed through open-records research precisely how Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and her staff backed away from enforcing the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative because of political pressure. Here is the link to the main piece. Here is another version. Both are a little disjointed, but the gist is clear: instead of implementing the law the legislature had passed, or publicly calling for its repeal or amendment, the executive branch simply weaseled its way out of enforcing the law.

A law, you should know, that was endorsed by the right-wing “Right on Crime” advocacy group and that otherwise has strong conservative support in other states. A law that:

[S]eeks to slow growth of the state’s inmate population over the long term by investing millions of dollars now in diversionary programs, post-imprisonment supervision and mental health and substance abuse assessments for those about to be sentenced to prison. If implemented in full, the initiative has the potential to reduce state prison beds by more than 2,000 and slash corrections costs by $200 million over the next decade, with more than half of that reinvested into focused crime-fighting strategies.

Not exactly unlocking the Tower of London, right? But evidently that didn’t matter to Gov. Fallin and her crew. The documents and emails show that last year there was the concern, expressed by an aide to the governor, that President Obama also favors prison reform. There was the concern, expressed by the governor’s chief of staff, about linking the state to “liberal corrections reforms groups” that also favored the law. And there was the concern, expressed more broadly among the governor’s staff, that the Sooner Tea Party considered support for the law “soft on crime.” Gov. Fallin, the piece notes, now faces a Tea Party challenge from a fellow named Randy Brogdon.

And all that nonsense, in turn, caused the governor in 2013 to turn down federal funding that would have helped implement the new reform laws. How did the governor’s staff justify their decision to turn away the federal money designed to ease the burden on state taxpayers? By claiming it was an example of “fiscal thrift,” to use the words in the AP story. “Fallin has criticized the federal government’s reluctance to provide funding for roads, Medicaid matches or disaster relief, but in this case didn’t want federal funding,” the AP reported. Got that? The result is this:

Fallin’s fiscal year 2014 executive budget contained standstill funding for the Department of Corrections overall and didn’t fund many of the reforms, including hiring additional probation and parole officers to lighten current staff’s maxed-out caseloads.

Take a step back now and contemplate what this means for the good people of Oklahoma. Like the citizens of many other states, they are drowning in prisoners and the costs of incarceration, paying a terrible price for the “tough on crime” approach to law enforcement. Oklahoma is first in the nation—first in the world!—in per capita incarceration of female inmates and fourth in per capita incarceration of male inmates. Its prison population has consistently grown faster than its overall population and, from 2000 to 2010, the state’s corrections budget grew more than 30 percent.

Unlike the citizens of many other states, however, the good people of Oklahoma have a law on the books that can help save them $120 million over the next ten years by gradually reducing the state’s prison population. And yet that law evidently will go unenforced, sabotaged even, so that the current governor will be able at some point in the next few months to say to her election opponent that she opposes the policies of President Obama, and that she does not align herself with prison reformers, and that she is “tough on crime.”

She’s tough. Her opponent is tough. Everyone in Oklahoma is tough. And in the meantime this poor state continues to put its people in prison at an extraordinary rate, continues to run up a corrections tab its budget cannot afford, and continues to burden its taxpayers with costs that can easily be avoided. The story of this ill-fated Justice Reinvestment Initiative is the story of how broken government can be today, when even the good ideas, the sensible ideas, the bipartisan ideas, succumb to political cowardice.