State leaders launch initiative to improve criminal justice system

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Through a Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a group of Oklahomans will analyze the state’s justice system in hopes of developing changes and policies to lower corrections costs, control prison overcrowding and use taxpayer funds more effectively for public safety. Gov. Mary Fallin, House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman on Thursday announced Oklahoma’s kickoff of the JRI, a bipartisan effort to engage in a data-driven approach to public safety.

The process will be used to develop new justice system policies that holds offenders accountable while reducing corrections costs. “This is about addressing crime in Oklahoma in a better way that we all know exists but have yet to specifically identify,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “Thirty-six states have seen violent crime rate reductions in recent years, but Oklahoma’s violent crime rate remains unacceptably high. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative will determine why this is the case so policies can be developed to achieve better outcomes through our justice system.”

Rigorous data analyses will determine the effectiveness of existing public safety and corrections policies. States like Texas, Indiana and Kansas have successfully used the method to develop reforms that increase public safety, reduce prison overcrowding and better allocate taxpayer resources.

“It can never be bad to periodically look at data,” said Pottawatomie County District Attorney Richard Smothermon, adding the initiative is a “bipartisan approach to take a serious look at a problem that is “increasingly overwhelming.”

Smothermon said he supports anything to help in these efforts “as long as it does not compromise the safety of the public.”
The numbers tell the story in other states where violent crime and prison populations are reduced, he said, adding there is a need here to help keep someone from re-offending and going back into the system.

Sid Stell, director of the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center, which holds many prisoners before transfer into the Department of Corrections, said the recidivism rate is high, likely because of the lack of available programs and supervision after a prisoner is released.

“The key is education. These inmates have no jobs or low-pay jobs,” Stell said. “They get food and medical care in jail and prison.”
Oklahoma has the nation’s highest female incarceration rate and third highest male incarceration rate, so state prisons usually operate at unsustainable maximum capacity levels, officials said, and in the past decade, DOC has needed supplemental appropriations nearly every year.

Fallin said the bipartisan 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,” she said. “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative brings together a bipartisan group to study the legal system and I look forward to reviewing their recommendations.”

DOC Director Justin Jones said the JRI process is a key part of ongoing efforts to reduce the strains that overcrowded prisons have placed on the state’s budget.
“The first step is for us to collect and analyze the data and fully understand our situation. 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,” Jones said.

This year, Fallin also signed into law House Bill 2131, a major corrections policy reform measure authored by Steele that will divert more low-risk, nonviolent offenders from prison to community sentencing.

“HB 2131 laid the groundwork for the future reforms we will make through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” Steele said. “There has been bipartisan, statewide agreement that the course we are on is unsustainable, and the JRI effort is the next step in changing that course.”

The state has established a Justice Reinvestment Working Group composed of state agency directors, legislative leaders and top court officials. Suggestions will also be solicited from those directly and indirectly involved in the criminal justice system, including judges, district attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement officials, advocates for crime victims and community treatment providers.
“The JRI process will focus on three key areas — violent crime, supervision and inmate populations.

Steele will serve as co-chair of the group, which will meet periodically over the next several months to review the findings of the data analyses and begin crafting policy proposals.