By Clifton Adcock
The Moore American
MOORE — Behind-the-scenes moves by Gov. Mary Fallin’s senior staff members helped lead to a severe weakening of a program designed to cut the state’s high incarceration rates and save taxpayers more than $200 million over a decade, according to interviews and records obtained by Oklahoma Watch.
The efforts by the governor’s staff, assisted by legislative leaders, to take control of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative took place during periods when staff members met with representatives of private prison companies, which stood to gain depending on how the initiative was implemented, emails and logs of visitors to Fallin’s office show.
During that time, private-prison company representatives also made donations to Fallin’s 2014 campaign as well as to legislators, Oklahoma Ethics Commission records indicate.
Steve Mullins, Fallin’s general counsel, said private prison groups and lobbyists played no role in the approach staff took.
Mullins also pointed out that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI, did not die. Several reforms, such as public-safety grants, received state funding and have been implemented.
But the JRI’s biggest supporters said the program was left in near shambles after the governor’s office delayed carrying it out, reversed itself on seeking a federal grant and orchestrated a move to keep former House Speaker Kris Steele from leading a group overseeing implementation.
Steele said he believes a political desire to appear “tough on crime” and pressure from private prison groups curbed efforts.
Throughout the JRI process, Fallin has expressed support for the program and its goals. The goal of the JRI was to steer nonviolent offenders away from prison, lowering the state’s incarceration rates and costs and using the savings to pay for public-safety efforts.
But the planned funding dropped, sentencing alternatives aren’t being carried out, fewer pardon and parole officers to monitor offenders were added, and crime-reduction strategy training for local law enforcement agencies didn't occur. The initiative also has no official coordinator.
Renewed focus on the JRI comes after Fallin’s office released in late November more than 8,000 documents and emails related to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The JRI also continues to draw attention because Oklahoma’s prisons remain overcrowded, with the population rising to more than 26,700 last week.
Among the key actions revealed in the emails and visitor logs of the governor’s office:
· In January, after failing to get Fallin’s preferred candidate named as head of the JRI oversight board, Rebecca Frazier, then Fallin’s assistant general counsel, emailed Mullins pointing out that if the state rejected a federal grant for the JRI, the coordinator job wouldn’t be funded. Mullins affirmed a “new tack” of rejecting federal funds.
· Fallin’s staff played a key role in crafting and pushing legislation that would have done away with the JRI oversight group co-chaired by Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. Steele and Prater resigned from the JRI group in March expressing frustration at Fallin’s office. The legislation ultimately died.
· Facing a deadline for bills getting out of committee, Fallin’s’ Chief of Staff Denise Northrup urgently pressed for a vote on the legislation overhauling the oversight group. The email was sent within a few hours after Mullins met with the president and other representatives of private-prison company Geo Group. Mullins said the reform initiative was not discussed at the meeting.
· Early in the process of carrying out the initiative, Frazier stated in an email that the Department of Corrections planned to transfer prisoners to private prisons owned by Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group. Justin Jones, former corrections department director, denies ever signing off on such a plan.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.