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Tulsa World, Jan. 12, 2014

Politics has trumped over sense in state prison policy

Politics trumping policy isn’t a crime in Oklahoma. Politicians get away with it all the time, even when their actions shortchange constituents and shackle government to broken, costly, outmoded and even unsafe ways of doing business.

In 2012, Oklahoma had a chance to begin reforming its prison system, to reduce its nonviolent inmate population and to quit forcing a choice at appropriations time between throwing money down a rat hole and improving education, health care, infrastructure and other areas. And, to improve public safety.

A new smart-on-crime model for corrections - data-driven and backed by conservatives ranging from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - has yielded results in more than a dozen states including no less a law-and-order bastion than Texas. Over the past six years, Texas has shuttered a prison for the first time in 100 years, reduced its prison population, once hovering at 162,000. Meanwhile, Texans are experiencing a 30-year low in their violent crime rate because it is putting incarceration savings into crime-fighting strategies.

Oklahoma received the same promising formula, known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Lawmakers passed JRI reform two years ago, championed by term-limited House Speaker Kris Steele and supported by Gov. Mary Fallin.

And then the wheels came off the bus.

After only one year of funding, the initiative, which had the potential to save $200 million over the next decade, went from “political darling to albatross,” according to a recent investigation by the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman and The Associated Press. The three news organizations waited months to review emails exchanged in the governor’s office relating to JRI.

Apparently at the urging of her staff, Fallin, as well as new legislative leadership, backed off JRI, fearful it would be perceived as too soft on crime. The powerful private prison industry, generous with political contributions, also might have played a role in the virtual abandonment of JRI.

That abandonment represents a miserable moment for Oklahomans. Prison expenses - $460 million a year and climbing - rank among the state’s largest expenditures.

The JRI reforms sought to encourage rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, to lessen emphasis on prison time as punishment for certain offenders, to strictly supervise offenders after their release and to put some of the incarceration savings, about $20,000 per inmate a year, into crime prevention.

Without reform, projections for prison growth over the next decade - a need for at least 3,000 more beds in a system already supporting nearly 27,000 inmates - are alarming. Inmate numbers have far outpaced Oklahoma’s general population; 25 years ago Oklahoma had 8,000 inmates.

Oklahoman remains handcuffed to this runaway train, with prison growth unchecked and an overflow crowd backed up in county jails. Corrections officers are underpaid and prisons are understaffed, putting guards and the public at risk.

The initiative could have put the brakes on growth and given taxpayers more bang for their buck. Lost is the potential of better protecting the public, better handling the type of inmate who enters and leaves prison. State leaders had the chance to systematically and rationally address the issue, but instead put politics over policy.

Oklahomans should be asking the real reason why they chose not to curb prison growth, why we are no safer in spite of mass incarceration.

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