On both offense and defense, Oklahoma criminal justice reformers advance the ball
Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Governor Mary Fallin has praised the first recipient of Oklahoma’s new “Pay for Success” (PFS) system – Family & Children’s Services (F&CS) a Tulsa-based prison diversion program. PFS will operate under the umbrella of the acclaimed Women in Recovery (WIR) organization, also based in Tulsa.
A celebratory event hailing PFS took place in the State Capitol Blue Room Tuesday afternoon (April 11).
The joyful ormal launch came as criminal justice reform advocates cheered advances for substantive criminal justice reforms in recent weeks, although the most notable win was defensive in nature. That was last week’s apparent demise of House Bill 1482, a measure intended to gut the intent of State Questions 780 and 781, historic statutory ballot initiatives that gained voter approval in last November’s election (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/will-legislative-republicans-kill-criminal-justice-reform-for-a-second-time).
S.Q. 780 was the main target of H.B. 1482, which would reestablish in many instances felony charging options for possession of small amounts of drugs.
Felony convictions for drug possession have been a principal factor driving the Sooner State into the unenviable position of imprisoning more women than any other American state (while ranking third in overall incarceration). The ballot questions left felony measures in place for drug dealers.
Concerning WIR, F&CS and the new PFS program, in a prepared statement, Gov. Fallin said, “Government too often pays for programs that it hopes work, but under this arrangement, government will pay for what works.
“Women in Recovery is a cost-effective alternative that improves public safety and helps preserve Oklahoma families. Through this agreement, the state will partner with private entities to expand its success and reduce Oklahoma’s unacceptable female incarceration rate in the process.”
Specifically concerning PFS, a press release from Fallin’s office pointed out it is “an innovative funding model that combines nonprofit expertise, private funding, and independent evaluation to transform how government leaders respond to chronic social issues. Through PFS, funders provide the upfront capital to scale effective service providers. Government agrees to repay funders if and when the project achieves its desired impact. Through this PFS contract, the state will repay only if WIR program participants are not incarcerated in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC).”
Modeled on successful efforts in the United Kingdom, more than 70 PFS programs now operate in 18 countries. Sixteen U.S. projects already exist; the Tulsa effort is number 17 in the United States.
Ken Levit of Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation, which funds WIR, said, “We are thrilled to see completion of this historic agreement that motivates philanthropy, nonprofit and government to work together, in pursuit of better outcomes.”
WIR officials believe the new pay-if-it-works approach will service up to 125 women over five years.
Sustaining a statewide push against over-incarceration, several new criminal justice reform proposals emerged from the work of Governor Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force, which issued 27 policy recommendations intending to reverse state prison population growth.
These incremental changes in parole and other aspects of the state’s system are pending before a House legislative committee this week, where prospects seem mixed. Without these additional reforms, the state may need three new prisons within a decade, costing as much as $2 billion to finance.
Advocates of reform rejoiced after H.B 1482 died (for now) in a Senate committee. That measure was intended to gut the essence of S.Q. 780, a proposal that secured its support after a long campaign that drew the support of conservatives, liberals, and libertarians on a multi-partisan basis.
Ryan Kiesel, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma, said H.B. 1482, which cleared the state House with 51 votes (the minimum needed for approval) should never have “received the traction it did.”
After learning the measure would not leave committee, Kiesel (a former Democratic state legislator) reflected, “Barring some extraordinary and irresponsible measure from Senate leadership, this reckless attempt to subvert the will of the people is behind us for the moment.”
Kris Steele, a Republican who is the former Oklahoma House speaker, said, “Thanks to the voice of the people, momentum for rolling back the state questions is all but gone and momentum for more reform grows every day. Keeping the state questions intact and supporting the governor’s task force bills saves taxpayers nearly $2 billion, makes us safer and restores lives.”
In his capacity as chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (which organized the two ballot initiative campaigns) Steele commented, “We’re optimistic that when this session ends, legislators will have built on the progress made by Oklahoma voters by enacting more historic reforms that send Oklahoma’s criminal justice system back in the right direction.”