We know, we know. We promised once the Oklahoma legislative session was over, we wouldn’t keep hammering on the reform [sic] that it passed this last year for the overassuming and underperforming undergirding the entire legislation. But this op-ed tipped us over again, although we will claim that this post is just another in our continuing complaints about “good” articles that overlook and understate so much about policy in our criminal processing system. It’s our home state and we know so much more of the “inside” story on this that we can’t just let this stuff slide.
The piece lauds the legislation and hypothesizes that OK will be the next great example of criminal processing reform nationally. All based on a piddling sum appropriated to cover new required supervision of inmates who used to be released directly to the streets, grants to local law enforcement that will likely be used to offset losses in staff due to budget cuts rather than initiatives spelled out in the bill (although the names of these initiatives will be used exponentially more in press releases, just watch), and even more piddling money for pre-sentencing mental health assessments of offenders. The op-ed also notes that DOC can build intermediate revocation centers, but the money was not available, meaning that halfway houses from the private sector will be the go-to for that part of the legislation, the private sector that gains nothing from actually reducing prison populations.
We’re not making any of that up. In fact, it’s worse than it sounds. For instance, the money appropriated for the increased supervision? More than offset by mandated increases in private prison funding. As this article spells out, the senator responsible for that says DOC has the money to do both, but it turns out that’s only by cutting deeply into the inventory budget for the state correctional industries program, one of the best anti-recidivism programs DOC runs. So it looks like those parole officers will have even more to do as recidivism goes up.
The law enforcement grants will be allocated by the state Attorney General’s Office, not exactly unbiased and critical of tough-talking, sameo-sameo walking. And those assessments before sentencing? No one bothered to do intense focus-grouping of the state DAs or judges to even see if they’ll be looked at, much less followed. Historically, OK practitioners have not been supportive of outsiders telling them how to sentence, as witnessed by the very sparse use of even pre-sentence investigations in the state. The fact that few counties could provide data on PSIs to the reform team might have been a tipoff if anyone had actually been interested in likely implementation when the legislation was going through. The capper is that the evaluation [sic] of this reform will be done by the Attorney General's office (who will for one thing be evaluating himself on how well the grants he made decisions on did) which has, we're certain, no professional program evaluator on staff and is only empowered to gather stats from contributing agencies to issue in a descriptive stat report each year. No independent and professional analysis of actual effectiveness of anything passed. Good plan.
All of this will be familiar (and maybe nauseating) for regular readers here. What’s most concerning about the op-ed isn’t so much it’s unquestioning acceptance of the value of the legislation (even after the invaluable OK Policy Blog has repeatedly raised questions). It’s that we get the frankly dangerous invocation once again of Texas as the shining example that Oklahoma will try to follow. Bluntly put, in a process supposedly based on evidence-based practice, we have little evidence that Texas has accomplished what is claimed for it or, even if it has, the states following it have followed or will follow what got TX there.
For one thing, note that Texas’ push for reforms came from a flat-out rejection by the House Speaker there of any more new prisons. With that strict ceiling placed on what the state would do, the House and Senate leaders there had to come up with other ways of protecting public safety. That did lead them to the research behind evidence-based practice and many of the changes that had worked in other places. Ask yourself, though. How many other states have such a restriction placed on their ability to do prisons prior to their reforms? The answer in my experience with these efforts was none, but I don’t know if that holds absolutely. It didn’t in OK and won’t in the coming years that are supposed to receive continued support after the top political leader supporting them leaves through term limits.
But before we go crazy about just the bills that got passed, what happened to appropriations and a continued commitment to the move away from prisons? This piece and this one make clear that the state continued to add prison space (2000 beds) despite famously closing an old prison located in a now-upcoming area that doesn’t think prisons nearby help property and resale values. And the writers castigate the policymakers for, when push comes to shove again, valuing prison beds over spending for the treatment associated with the reforms. This piece noted that 1000 treatment beds had gone unused, probably in large part because the legislation didn’t require their use by judges and prosecutors (see OK above).
But that’s not even the real concern. The Texas reforms got passed in 2007, probably took a year more or less to implement (although not completely as just noted). It’s only been in the last year or so that a professional evaluation could legitimately be done of any long-term and lasting impact from them. You seen one? One that includes all the other factors that may have influenced the favorable stats that get hauled out without question to demonstrate reform effectiveness? Seriously. If you’ve seen one, let us know.
Such an evaluation would have to take into account any trends in TX crime rates before the reforms ever went into effect. If you look at the state’s crime rates, you’ll find that its crime rate has dropped every year since 2002, FIVE YEARS before the reforms even passed. Before 2002, they had dropped every year from 1988 to 2000, then edged up a bit in 2001 and 2002 before their current descent. IOW, the claim to fame of the Texas reforms, prominently announced in the OK op-ed, that the TX crime rate dropped after the reforms and therefore all states should follow its lead was actually a continuation of a two-decade trend started by factors as yet unproclaimed but very likely still in play. Another IOW, before we point to changes caused by the reforms, we need to introduce other factors into whatever model is used and then ruthlessly parse out the effect of each. While the programs recommended may be evidence-based, the reforms themselves are not and proclamations of their value and impact should be withheld until they are.
Which gets us back to the cheerleading of the op-ed. To its credit, the newspaper in question has been one of the few voices for reform in Oklahoma going back a couple of decades now and deserves far more kudos from the state’s citizens that it will ever get. But that doesn’t excuse reporting that has but doesn’t use the Internet to track down basic info like that available at the OK Policy Blog or in simple crime rate stats. Pieces helpful at the time may blow up badly for everyone in the reform cause if/when fallacies behind the assumptions and assertions for the reforms actually do come to the fore.
Just note these stories at the same time as the op-ed that seem to hold promise for possible fuse-lighting. This one on a proposed halfway house location drawing strong opposition in the community. This one and this one from the state DOC trying to assure residents that halfway houses aren’t major threats, but it’s a promise always made with breath held (note the “usually” in the story). And this one showing homicide numbers in Oklahoma City up for the first half of 2012. You wanna be the one claiming wonderful things for reforms if/when something like these or other possibilities explode? You better be on the firmest ground possible with your data and examples.
Which means much, much better and more substantive than citing piddling changes that may not even cause change and relying on a state that really hasn’t demonstrated reform effectiveness conclusively yet as proof of anything.