Behind-the-scenes moves by Oklahoma 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, reports Oklahoma Watch. The efforts by the governor's staff, assisted by legislative leaders, to take control of the 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. During that time, private-prison company representatives made donations to Fallin's 2014 campaign as well as to legislators.
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 pointed out that JRI did not die. Several reforms, such as public-safety grants, received state funding and have been implemented. 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 initiative effort, from leading a group overseeing implementation. Steele said he believes a political desire to appear “tough on crime” and pressure from private prison groups ultimately curbed any serious reform efforts. JRI also continues to draw attention because Oklahoma's prisons remain overcrowded, with the population rising to more than 26,700 last month.