Are millions of tax dollars being wasted by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative?
It was a plan that called on the state to spend millions in order to save hundreds-of-millions of dollars. That plan was the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI. It was passed in 2012, but now the biggest supporters of the law say it is doomed to failure.
Simply put, JRI involved a three-year investment of state funds as part of a massive overhaul of the criminal justice system. The law called for more supervision of post-incarcerated inmates, grant money and training for better police practices and the creation of treatment facilities where non-violent offenders could go if they violated their parole.
"In Oklahoma we have increased spending for corrections by over 34% in the last 10 years we're incarcerating more people than we ever have in the history of our state, our prisons are at 99 percent plus capacity," said former House Speaker Kris Steele, "And yet for all the money we're spending and all the people we're incarcerating our violent crime rate continues to increase."
Steele says the state has spent about $6 million on JRI, but that's about half of what he says the law called for. Steele says the research he relied on to craft the law proves Oklahoma cannot piecemeal the JRI plan together. "No. And I say no without hesitation because no other state has been able to accomplish the savings and see an increase in public safety without fully implementing the law," Steele told Fox 25.
That means, according to Steele, that $6 million won't result in any eventual savings or any reduction in violent crime.
"We're not going to see any results, it's a comprehensive package," Steele said, "The key to the whole program, the key to achieving our goal, is ultimately to follow through and that has not happened."
Steele championed JRI during his last year as House Speaker and it became one of his signature pieces of legislation during his time as a lawmaker. He co-chaired the JRI working group, a committee comprised of members from all over Oklahoma who hold a stake in the criminal justice system.
Steele says that committee began to butt heads with members of the Governor's staff almost immediately. It began after Steele and Co-Chair Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater decided to subject the working group to the state's Open Meetings law.
"The governor's office did not appreciate, did not like the fact, that we had subjected the working group meetings to the open meetings act," Steele told Fox 25, "In fact, Steve Mullins, the governor's general counsel, expressed his frustration and required that we have pre private meetings to the actual working group meetings to discuss anything and everything that needed to be discussed."
"I want to make it very clear that I do support JRI," Governor Mary Fallin told reporters at a news conference earlier this year, "I signed the law as governor into law it is being implemented as planned by three different government agencies."
The Governor says the Department of Corrections has made changes and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse has performed evaluations of inmates as part of JRI. Governor Fallin also says the Attorney General's office has begun awarding grant money to law enforcement agencies.
Steele says that is not the full picture. He says the governor's budget has not included the money needed to fully fund the needed probation and parole officers and the state has turned down federal grant money intended to provide training on better police practices for agencies who receive grants from the AG's office.
Steele also says the "intermediate revocation facilities" intended to keep non-violent offenders out of prison when they violate parole are not in place.
Originally, JRI was estimated to save Oklahoma more than $200 million over the next ten years. When the same law was implemented in Texas, they saw an even bigger savings and closed a state prison because the crime rate dropped. Now Steele says because the state did not make the needed up-front investments Oklahoma will not see the results.
"It was sold to a lot of people that it wouldn't cost any more money," Fallin told reporters, "It was just reallocating resources and looking at implementing policies and that there wouldn't be a big price tag with JRI."
Steele says it is not possible the governor was unaware of the required investments. He says he spoke with her directly about the plan while it was being worked out. Steele also made multiple public appearances and appeared in both print and broadcast news stories promoting JRI before it was ever signed into law.
The governor also signed a letter that said she pledged to support the reforms and requested technical assistance along with federal grant money to help with the implementation of the reforms.
"Ultimately the governor's office was never supportive of the initiative," Steele said, "And they would say privately let's just wait until Kris Steele terms out and this whole issue goes away."
Steele said the final battle came when it was time to pick a JRI coordinator. The candidate interviews were performed by a small group that included a member of the governor's staff and other executive-branch representatives.
"In the interview process it became very clear that the governor's office had selected, pre-selected, a candidate that they wanted for the position," Steele said.
When asked about the fight over the coordinator position, Governor Fallin said she and her staff never supported the idea of a coordinator. "We didn't feel like we needed a JRI coordinator, because we have the type of administration where we all work together."
However that statement is in direct contradiction to emails Fox 25 reviewed as part of an open records request. The governor's office released more than 8,000 pages of documents about the JRI development and implementation.
Throughout the fall of 2012 the governor's staff exchanged emails about the coordinator interviews. One email exchange indicates one candidate was preferred by the governor's staff. The governor's chief of staff, Denise Northrup, wrote in one reply "if that's who we want we need to work it."
The coordinator position was supposed to be funded through a federal grant.
However when the governor's candidate was rejected, then deputy general counsel Rebecca Fraizer wrote "If all the agencies refuse funds, there will be no way to pass through the coordinator funding."
The governor's general counsel replied, "Maybe it's time we take a new tack." Mullins went on to say the new public message would be that Oklahoma had decided to fund the JRI reforms itself and would not be seeking any federal assistance.
"I think we have to consider policy over personalities, we have to consider people over politics," Steele said, "I think the politics won out at the end of the day."
After the grant funding was rejected, Steele and Prater resigned from the JRI working group, effectively ending its work. At the same time, proposed legislation that would have created a replacement working group died silently at the capitol.
"We resigned and after that the legislature dropped that committeethe governor's office abandoned support of that committee," Steele said, "They were only using that, I believe, to ultimately get rid of this oversight committee that we had established."
Governor Fallin says she needs the cooperation of the new director of the Department of Corrections as well as that of the judiciary in order to enact the rest of the JRI reforms. She has made multiple statements that she continues to support the initiative.