Records on Okla. prison reforms are released

Gov. Mary Fallin's office has released more than 8,000 records related to the prison reforms

By Cary Aspinwall
Tulsa World

TULSA, Okla — Fifteen months after the Tulsa World requested public records relating to the now-gutted Justice Reinvestment Initiative, Gov. Mary Fallin's office has released more than 8,000 records related to the prison reforms.

The World is reviewing thousands of records to uncover answers as to what happened to the much-heralded package of reforms aimed at curbing prison growth that quickly lost momentum -- and funding -- after the governor signed the law in May 2012. Fallin's spokesman Alex Weintz said the long delay on the open records request was because of the volume of records reviewed by the Governor's Office and confusion by staff members.

"It's possible that somewhere along the line that someone got confused. We're the first administration that has existed completely in the digital age," Weintz said. "We're trying to be as responsive and as open and transparent as possible."

In September 2012, World reporters Barbara Hoberock and Cary Aspinwall requested emails and correspondence related to the implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative from the Governor's Office, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Legal counsel for all three offices sent a small amount of records in response, asserting that most of the requested records were exempt from Oklahoma's Open Records Act under a blanket assertion of "executive privilege."

The World responded with a letter explaining that no such privilege exists under the Open Records Act and requesting that the governor's legal counsel further detail the denial in writing, as required by state law.

General Counsel Steve Mullins requested a meeting with World reporters and editors to justify his decision in December 2012 but canceled at the last minute.

Since then, the World has made repeated attempts to get the requested JRI records from the Governor's Office and the Department of Corrections.

Last week, after an Associated Press article questioned Fallin's record on transparency, her office released 8,000 records related to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Other news organizations began asking for the records in the spring of this year, several months after the World's original request.

By then, news reports had shifted from how the law could reform Oklahoma's prison system to how the governor's budget didn't include funding for most of those reforms -- the ones her staff had proclaimed "much-needed" when she signed it.

Soon afterward, the co-chairmen of the committee that was to implement those reforms resigned in frustration over what they alleged were attempts by the Governor's Office to thwart progress.

And in October, Justin Jones -- one of the JRI reforms' top advocates -- resigned from his longtime job as director of the Department of Corrections.

The initiative called for drug and alcohol treatment and mental health evaluations to defer more people from prison and mandatory supervision for those leaving prison. Inmates making technical violations of probation and parole were supposed to be sent to intermediate revocation facilities for a short period of time instead of back to prison for longer sentences.

Largely, most of the reforms remain unfunded, and only a handful of changes have been implemented in slow, small steps. Oklahoma's prisons continue to hover near 99 percent capacity with only about 60 percent of the staff required to operate them, records show.

Meanwhile, Fallin's office is facing two lawsuits regarding the "executive privilege" claims.

The Oklahoma Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has sued regarding open records requests, claiming that such "executive privileges" do not exist under state law.

Fallin's office also has been sued by a former employee of her Tulsa office who alleges that the governor is refusing to release employee and personnel file documents in violation of the Open Records Act.

Despite those lawsuits and having been given the "Black Hole Award" for thwarting access to public information, Mullins, Fallin's general counsel, told The Associated Press last week: "I really passionately believe that we're the most transparent administration you've ever seen."

Freedom of Information Oklahoma board member and media law expert Joey Senat questioned that claim. "I don't believe that's the case," he said. "If that were actually true, that's a low bar. She's not living up to the pledge she signed (to abide by both the spirit and the letter of the law)."

It appears that the Governor's Office has "set up a system that's delaying access," he said.

"It's rather nonsensical to claim that she's the most transparent when she's claiming privileges that no other governor has claimed," Senat said. "It's difficult for people to know what their government is doing if they can't get records out of someone as essential as the Governor's Office."

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