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How Actions by Oklahoma Governor’s Staff Led to Weakened State Justice Reforms
Behind-the-scenes moves by Oklahoma Governor 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 state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) took place during periods when staff members met with representatives of private prison companies, which stood to gain or lose depending on how the initiative was implemented, according to emails and logs of visitors to Fallin’s office.
During that time, private prison company representatives also made donations to Governor 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 that he and other staff members took in regard to the initiative.
“I know for a fact I’ve never recommended a private prison as a JRI solution, so I know that it wouldn’t have influenced anything because it didn’t influence my recommendations,” Mullins said.
He also pointed out that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative did not die. Several reforms, such as public safety grants, received state funding and have been implemented.
But the JRI’s biggest supporters say 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, who led the JRI effort, from leading a group overseeing implementation of the initiative.
Steele said he believes a political desire to appear “tough on crime” and pressure from private prison companies ultimately curbed any serious reform 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, such as law enforcement grants.
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 2013 – due to media requests – more than 8,000 documents and emails related to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
Among the key actions revealed in the emails and visitor logs of the governor’s office:
• In January 2013, 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. Previously, Fallin had supported obtaining the federal grant to fully implement the initiative.
• 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 2013, expressing frustration at Fallin’s office. The legislation ultimately died, leaving no JRI oversight board or coordinator.
• 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 senior officials of private prison company GEO Group. Mullins said the reform initiative was not discussed at the meeting. Northrup was unavailable for comment.
• Five days after Steele’s and Prater’s resignations, the political action committee for Corrections Corporation of America made a $4,000 donation to Fallin’s 2014 campaign, putting the committee at the maximum donation amount. A few days later, a lobbyist who represents the company, among other clients, donated $5,000 to Fallin’s campaign. GEO Group had already made donations four days before the session started to 11 legislators, including $5,000 each to House Speaker T.W. Shannon and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Clark Jolley.
Nothing in the emails and other records reviewed by Oklahoma Watch states that actions taken by the governor’s staff or legislators were done at the request of private prison companies. But the documents show private prison companies communicated with the governor’s office specifically about the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
Messages left with Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group officials were not returned.
Steele said in an interview that the governor’s and attorney general’s offices were not seriously committed to the JRI reforms. Emails show Mullins and Chief of Staff Northrup wanted Steele off the JRI group once his term as Speaker of the House ended. He left the House because he was term-limited.
Steele said in an interview that he believed the view of the governor’s staff was “that I would be gone in a year and the issue would go away. I think ultimately, that’s what they were counting on.”
Mullins said instead that in pushing the bill, Fallin’s office wanted to see the group overseeing implementation of the JRI reformed and codified into state law so that it had statutory authority and political muscle to implement change in the system.
“It wasn’t the committee we needed to get the job done,” he said.
Reforms Win Approval
On May 10, 2012, Governor Fallin signed into law House Bill 3052, or the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
The signing was the culmination of a more than year-long effort in which Oklahoma sought assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Center on the States to implement a JRI program.
The idea behind the law was to increase the use of sentencing alternatives and other reforms to steer nonviolent offenders away from prison, which would save on prison costs, then reinvest the savings in public safety efforts.
A core JRI oversight group composed of state agency officials and others was to take the next steps, including working with the Council of State Governments to apply for a $400,000 federal grant.
However, “immediately we began to meet with resistance from the governor’s office,” Steele said recently. “I think as much as anything, it’s the fact that Gov. Fallin’s staff had convinced her that she had to be a tough-on-crime, lock-’em-up and throw-away-the-key leader.”
Steele said Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s and Fallin’s offices began to “slow-play” cooperation by refusing to communicate with the Council of State Governments or the JRI oversight group for long periods. Deadlines were missed, he said. The council asked the JRI group if the state still wanted grants to fund the initiative. Pruitt’s office was unavailable for comment.
In response, Fallin sent a letter to the Council of State Governments in October 2012 saying that the state was still supportive of the JRI.
“It was a way, I think, to appear supportive,” Steele said.
Meanwhile, the governor’s office was having doubts about the JRI oversight group, according to Mullins.
Initially, Fallin’s office did not have a seat on the JRI group, Mullins said, and the group lacked influential legislative players who could help get reform policies enacted.
“Clearly, we thought that the committee was not well-designed to be an execution committee. It was designed to be an evaluation committee,” he stated.
Other issues arose. Frazier, deputy general counsel, wrote in an email that Mullins felt the Council of State Governments was trying to control the process too much.
Fallin’s office told two key agency heads – then-Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Director Terri White – not to attend any of the meetings, Steele and Mullins said.
Mullins explained to Oklahoma Watch: “We’re not going to make our directors of programs take time out of their day to sit in a meeting when we don’t know what it’s about.”
Instead, Frazier was sent on their behalf and was to report back to them.
On January 9, 2013, the JRI group voted, 5-1, to name as coordinator an attorney with the law firm Crowe & Dunlevy. Frazier was the only dissenting vote.
Two days after Governor Fallin’s choice was rejected, Frazier emailed Mullins pointing out that in order for the coordinator position to be funded by the federal grant, the money would have to pass through a state agency. “If all of the agencies refuse funds, there will be no way to pass through the coordinator funding,” Frazier wrote.
Mullins replied, “Maybe we want to take a new tack.” He offered this language, in an apparent reference to automatic federal budget cuts: “In light of recent attention to targeted budgeted decisions by the federal government, this is not the time for the State to be requesting federal dollars in an expectation of future partnership commitments.... Therefore, Oklahoma is withdrawing its request for an (sic) JRI implementation grant from the United States Department of Justice.”
Mullins said in an interview that after Fallin had provided her letter of support for federal JRI grant money, most state agencies and groups due to receive the money decided they didn’t need the funding after all.
Previously, directors of two agencies that would play key roles in the JRI – Jones, of the corrections department, and White, of the mental health department – had expressed support for the reform initiative. They also had repeatedly called for more funding of their agencies.
Private Prison Firms’ Interest
Before the Justice Reinvestment Initiative was signed into law in May 2012, private prison companies expressed interest in the program, emails show.
On April 4, 2012, GEO Group lobbyist Brett “Cooper” Robinson sent an email to Frazier and Fallin’s policy director, Katie Altshuler, asking them to sit in on a meeting between GEO Group representatives and Northrup.
Representing GEO Group at the meeting were senior vice president John Hurley, regional vice president Reed Smith and other company officials. GEO Group operates the Lawton Correctional Facility and is contracted to operate an empty private prison in Hinton.
“We will be discussing per diems (state payments to private prison operators) and realignment of max prisoners from OSP (Oklahoma State Penitentiary),” Robinson wrote. “Would like to hear your thoughts on JRI and future impact on corrections.”
Mullins said any talk about the justice initiative during that meeting would have been forwarded to the Department of Corrections.
Avalon Correctional Services, which operates halfway houses on contract with the state, also expressed interest in the JRI as a way to expand its business.
On April 5, 2012, Avalon President Brian Costello sent Corrections Director Justin Jones a letter about the potential need for intermediate sanction or revocation bed space under the JRI. The letter proposed that the department modify its contract with the company or draft a new contract with Avalon to provide intermediate facility space.
On May 10, the day the JRI was signed into law, Jones replied, declining the offer. Avalon officials did not return calls seeking comment.
By July 2012, staff members for Governor Fallin also were discussing intermediate facilities.
In a July 30 email, Frazier stated that as part of the justice initiative, the Department of Corrections would be moving offenders out of state-run facilities and into GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America prisons, then using the freed-up space to create intermediate revocation facilities.
Mullins told Oklahoma Watch that the plan to shift prisoners to private prisons under the initiative was proposed by Jones. Jones denies formally proposing such a plan.
Questions of Oversight
In the days leading up to the JRI group’s vote on a coordinator, House Speaker T.W. Shannon filed House Bill 2042, to alter oversight of the JRI.
Shannon’s legislation was a “shell bill,” meaning it had no legislative text but served as a placeholder in which a lawmaker can later insert language.
Rep. Jason Murphey began drafting text for the bill and became its author. He told Oklahoma Watch that Shannon’s staff brought the JRI group to his attention and said changes needed to be made. Shannon’s office did not return calls from Oklahoma Watch seeking comment.
Murphey said because the JRI group was not codified in state law, and thus not subject to state regulations such as the Open Meeting Act, it was important to make sure the group had statutory authority.
On February 14, 2013, Frazier sent an email to several Fallin staffers describing Murphey’s thinking about a JRI bill. Mullins suggested using the bill to limit a newly proposed JRI board to two years and allow the governor’s office to appoint the chair of the board.
Four days later, Rep. Murphey sent proposed language for the bill to House staff and others to codify the JRI board and give the governor the power to appoint the board’s chair, and for the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem to appoint other members.
“I suspect that was a way they could ultimately get control and get the outcome they wanted,” Steele says.
Meanwhile, Mullins, Frazier and Northrup were discussing the federal grant that would have paid for the JRI coordinator position.
On February 21, Frazier sent an email to the liaison for the Council of State Governments and the JRI oversight group, saying the state was turning down the funds.
Steele responded to Frazier, saying he was “stunned” by the decision.
The death knell for the JRI group came on March 13, 2013 – one day before the group’s scheduled meeting and the deadline for bills to be out of committee.
According to Governor Fallin’s visitor sign-in sheet, at 9:25 a.m. that day, GEO Group senior vice president John Hurley, regional vice president Reed Smith and GEO Group lobbyist Tonya Lee met with Mullins in the governor’s office.
At 11:56 a.m., Northrup emailed Fallin’s legislative director Craig Perry with the subject line of “urgent,” asking if she could get information on whether House Bill 2042 had made it out of committee.
About a half-hour later, Northrup sent an email about the bill to policy director Altshuler and Alex Weintz, Fallin’s communications director, saying, “We need to know and if I need to make a call to make it move I will....”
The bill made it out of committee and passed the House that night. Fallin’s office issued a press release thanking the House and reaffirming her commitment to the JRI.
The next morning, Steele and Prater resigned from the JRI group, saying the governor’s office had not taken the initiative seriously and had been dishonest. The JRI oversight group disbanded.
HB 2042 was amended slightly and passed by the Senate, but was never heard in conference committee. Mullins said the governor’s staff stopped pushing the bill because they didn’t think it had enough support.
Five days after the resignations, on March 19, 2013, Corrections Corporation of America’s political action committee provided a $4,000 donation to Governor Fallin’s 2014 campaign. Ten days afterward, Fallin’s campaign accepted a $5,000 donation from the company’s lobbyist, Tammie Kilpatrick.
Mullins denied that the meetings with private prison officials and the campaign contributions played a role in the decisions and actions surrounding the JRI.
“They [campaign donations] have absolutely no influence. None at all,” he said.
Success or Failure?
Despite the conflicts, Mullins said many of the JRI’s reforms have been implemented and Governor Fallin’s commitment to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative remains strong.
The state mental health department has developed an evaluation tool for judges for alternative sentencing, law enforcement grants are being provided and the corrections department has set up intermediate beds for probation or parole offenders.
But Steele said many of the reforms have not been implemented because they were not adequately funded. Legislative leaders initially agreed in May 2013 to spend $3.5 million, but that amount was reduced. The Council of State Governments had recommended spending $6 million in fiscal year 2013 and $13 million annually beginning in 2014, for a total of $110 million by 2021.
“I do not think the state of Oklahoma can sustain the current trend,” Steele said, “either financially or from a human resource standpoint in relation to the way we deal with corrections and nonviolent offenders within our state.”
* Oklahoma Watch’s Lindsay Whelchel contributed to this story.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on important public policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, visit www.oklahomawatch.org. A longer, more detailed version of this article was published by Oklahoma Watch on December 27, 2013.
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