Counsel from a Texan: conservative Republican encourages Oklahoma's Justice Reinvestment Initiative
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Published: 13-Feb-2012

State Rep. Jerry Madden, a Republican from Texas, was the 2012 legislator of the year for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Along with the senate author of the Lone Star State's historic criminal justice reforms over the past half-decade, he was Governing Magazine's legislator of the year. 

Despite his recent concentration on prisons and alternatives to incarceration, he is, rather proudly, “not a lawyer.” In comments at a program touting Oklahoma's Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), Madden remembered he was incredulous when the Texas House Speaker called him into his office to say, “I'm gonna make you chairman of the Corrections Committee.” 

When Madden reminded his chamber's leader he was “an engineer,” the Speaker instructed him, “Don't build new prisons. They cost too much.” 

Madden's speech to a large crowd of Oklahoma legislators, law enforcement personnel and others – at the Jim Thorpe Association headquarters near the state Capitol on Lincoln Boulevard last week – was often entertaining and folksy, but his purpose was serious.

As he recalled the situation (circa 2005) in his state, “We faced a tremendously growing curve [for prison population] if we didn't do something. Oklahoma has the same thing, the same issue. We looked at the charts, the projections, and knew we had to slow [offenders] down from coming into the system in the first place.”

Specifically, by 2007, the projection was 17,700 more prison beds were needed in the state by 2012. The cost, well, as he put it, was “a lot.” What did those figures mean for probation spending? “A whole lot,” he answered. And for, the parole system, “also a whole lot.” 

At the time, Texas Governor Rick Perry's budget was looking at spending $550 million more on three more prisons within a few years. Madden and his colleagues began to ask for help from people who studied the issues of crime and incarceration, and the alternatives. 

The legislators were intrigued to learn that “the think tanks, the specialists” agreed on about 70 to 80 percent of all the issues on what policy changes were needed. He remembered, “They had many of the same prescriptions for what should be done. So, even as we began, we had reforms that were able to appeal to both sides.”

While the first stab at reform attracted a veto from Gov. Perry, “that turned out to be the best thing that happened.” He says they weren't quite ready for real reform.

Rep. Madden and his allies began to “focus on probation and parole and supervision after prison. We had to focus on having not so many revocations. That led us to look at drug treatment in the prisons, programs for alcoholism. With prisoners you had to concentrate on changing their way of thinking. The idea was to keep offenders, first timers and some second timers, in the communities at less expense. That turned out to be both more efficient and more productive.” 

Madden told the assembled legislators and analysts to ask questions of themselves, and about their corrections and other criminal justice systems. Concerning prisoners, he said, “One of the questions to asked is 'what percentage of these people are you actually afraid of, and what percentage are you just mad at?' Keep the ones you're afraid of inside, not the ones you're just mad at.”

Madden said he and conservative Republican allies began to work with the Council of State Governments (which he had joined in 2006) and groups like the Pew Center on the States.

Over time, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, has touted “The Texas Model,” praising the policies that have emerged for yielding lower crime and lower government costs. The group formed “Right on Crime,” a national movement led by former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III, to push policies similar to the JRI approach. 

Madden remembered, “We began to work through practical questions. How much will this cost us? What do we do with the prison population?”

He continued, “In policies, we began to look at everything. Mental health treatment. Subtance abuse treatment. None of that was cheap, but it was clear it would cost us less than half of the path we were on. On the prisons, we'd figured out, 'If you build it, they will come.' Our version of that was “If you build it, you'll fill it.'

“We also began to make changes in the juvenile system, paying for more supervision and more probation. Still, working it we trimmed the number of facilities from 10 to 7.”

Year by year, the Legislature redirected criminal justice policies and use of resources. As he put it, “We kept at it and by 2011, we knew it was working. This past year, we actually closed a prison.”

A paraphrase of Madden's counsel for Oklahoma, and for other states, with some direct quotes follows. 

First, each state is different. Know your state. Press to make things smarter, better, safer. The “cheaper” will come if you do those things. Do bold things to start out. Craft legislation tailored to your needs. As he put it, jokingly, “That's the easiest part!” 

Second, on implementation of system changes, “Do it right. Create, develop, put in place. Then improve and implement some more.” Consistency in the direction is important.

Third, Madden advised, use data, data, data. Make your own reports on success and failure. “The worst mistake I made on this was that we didn't do that at first, our data wasn't specific enough and had to be corrected later.”

Fourth, he said, “Do risk analysis. This is critical throughout.” Don't spend a lot of money on those high risk offenders. Spend your money on the low and medium-risk offenders. Spending a lot of money on the high risk is “gross stupidity.” There are people who even if they did something bad are NEVER coming back to prison. Don't waste a lot of money on them, either. As he put, “Spend the money on the people in the middle,” finding ways to redirect them, supervise them and edge them out of trouble – so that they never see the criminal justice system again.

Madden spoke in support of the broad direction Oklahoma is taking with its Justice Reinvestment Initiative, building on legislation passed last year with sponsorship of House Speaker Kris Steele. Steele is now crafting House Bill 3052, legislation designed to us data to help design new policies and practices, putting more felons exiting prison under supervision, to slow the growth in prison populations, guide resources into local police departments, contain costs and make other reforms.

A bipartisan range of members of both Houses attended last week's JRI session, including state Sens. Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa and Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne, and state Reps. Jeannie McDaniel of Tulsa, Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City, Scott Martin of Norman, Todd Russ of :Cordell, Harold Wright of Weatherford, Jadine Nollan of Sand Springs, Tom Newell of Seminole, Charles Ortega of Altus, Ann Coody of Lawton, Lisa Billy of Lindsay, Lee Denney of Cushing, and Randy McDaniel of Oklahoma City.

Other speakers at the JRI event included Speaker Steele, Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, Marshall Clement of the Council of State Governments, and Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb. 

Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and District Attorney David Prater, and other county officials from around the state, were also in attendance. 

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