OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Mary Fallin's latest appointment to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has garnered high praise, as supporters say that it proves her dedication to criminal justice reform.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Mary Fallin's latest appointment to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has garnered high praise, as supporters say that it proves her dedication to criminal justice reform.

She appointed Kris Steele, a former speaker of the House of Representatives who organized the statewide campaign to reduce sentences for simple drug possession. The appointment comes at a time when critics have been noting that the state paroles fewer prisoners than almost any other in the nation, when the state's prison population is well above capacity, and when it has become increasingly clear that the Legislature is struggling to pay for vital services.

Steele is the executive director of TEEM, also known as The Education and Employment Ministry. It pushes to lower incarceration and poverty rates by encouraging education and work readiness. Before that, he led Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the group that campaigned for state questions 780 and 781. Those reduced several sentences related to drug charges and required the state to use the money it saves in doing so to pay for substance abuse treatment. When a few lawmakers attempted to water down those new laws during the legislative session, Steele was a vocal critic.

Fallin is quoted in her press release, which was issued Tuesday afternoon, as saying that Steele has worked extensively to bring criminal justice reform to Oklahoma and is widely regarded for his fairness. Policy analysts across the state responded similarly.

Ryan Gentzler, a policy analyst at the progressive Oklahoma Policy Institute, focuses on criminal justice reform. He said Oklahoma ranks in the bottom five in the nation for parole rates, despite its ranking as second-highest in the nation for incarceration.

“We just have this huge bottleneck at the end of the process," he said.

He said some of that could be attributed to a requirement that is rare in other states. Oklahoma requires every violent offender to get parole approval from both the board and the governor. He said several other issues would have been addressed in a legislative bill that failed this session. House Bill 2286 would have, among other things, created an administrative process for nonviolent offenses that would speed up approval. It also would have required social and mental health workers to serve on the board.

"I think there’s a lot of work to be done on the Pardon and Parole Board," he said. "And I think appointing Kris (Steele) is a good step on that."

Trent England is the executive vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank in Oklahoma City. He said that it's hard to tell how the deliberations actually take place, but because of the low rates, some residents might believe there isn't much consideration, he said. That is especially true given how similar each of the members' backgrounds are. Two of the three that are on the current board were assistant district attorneys before heading to the district bench, where they retired.

"A lot of people have felt like that was just for show," England said. "I think Kris Steele will give people more of a sense there will be serious debate."

As Fallin's gubernatorial term winds to a close, it is becoming clear that she aims for criminal justice reform to be one of her legacies. Among other examples, that became evident when she publicly reamed House Judiciary, Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee Chairman Scott Biggs for refusing to give several measures a hearing before session ended. England said that this appointment is the latest iteration in her effort.

"I think the governor has once again proven that she wants to make criminal justice reform one of her signature issues," he said. "I think Oklahoma will remember Gov. Fallin for her role in leading this conversation."

Oklahoma’s prison system is filled past capacity and more than 1,000 people are on a waiting list for its overflow options, contracted county jails. Agency projections show that under the current legal structure, the prison population will grow 25 percent over the next decade. That would require three new prisons, and those additions would cost $1.9 billion, according to the governor’s office. In late July, Department of Corrections officials lamented the Legislature's failure to pass criminal justice reforms to address the population surge, and they discussed the potential to take matters into their own hands. For example, they plan to create their own kind of conditional release program.

Steele will bring the five-member board's population back to four. Three members have resigned this year, and until this week, only one had been replaced. During the shortage, some defense attorneys noted that it would likely be harder for prisoners to get paroled because they would have to garner unanimous support.