Criminal Justice

Adam Luck: Oklahoma’s Accidental Criminal Justice Czar

June 28, 2016

Alex Weintz


By Alex Weintz

Governor Mary Fallin signed HB 3052 at a public ceremony in 2012 with a great deal of fanfare. The bill created the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI. The event was supposed to signal the end of one era—a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” philosophy on criminal justice—and the beginning of a smarter approach that emphasized rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders, especially those with mental health or addiction issues.

The reforms were not just aimed at helping adults. As data recently released from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows, about one in 10 Oklahoma children have parents who have been or are currently imprisoned. Those children are more likely to go to prison themselves and more likely to live in poverty. JRI was about breaking a cycle of incarceration, poverty, and misery for adults and children.

Unfortunately, it did not work out that way. How and why is a matter of dispute, but two things are clear: first, a massive overhaul of our justice system did not occur; and second, there was never the money for the up-front costs the most ambitious aspects of JRI called for, such as the creation of new “intermediate” detention facilities focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration.

By 2013, the shift to “smart on crime” seemed to many to be a failure, with both journalists and JRI supporters accusing Governor Fallin of never being committed to the plan in the first place (an unfair accusation in the minds of those of us who worked closely with Fallin).

Three years later, the state has reversed course a second time, with Fallin and legislative leaders in both parties again offering support for reforms that offer alternatives to long prison sentences. In late April, Fallin signed (again to considerable fanfare) legislation that reduces or eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for some drug possession charges, raises the felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000, and expands community sentencing (local alternatives to state prisons that emphasize reintegration).

Oklahoma’s criminal justice reform efforts now seem to be back on track, with significant inroads being made with bipartisan support. So what changed?

There are many factors, of course, but one difference-maker is clear: the emergence of a Harvard fellow named Adam Luck as a leading public policy voice.

Luck joined Fallin’s staff in 2013 as part of the Michael S. Dukakis Governors’ Summer Fellowship Program at Harvard University’s graduate school of government. He was not necessarily looking for a career in public policy, or even a career in Oklahoma. Although he is a Broken Arrow native, at 26, Luck returned to Oklahoma as an Air Force veteran with a young family and a great deal of uncertainty about what the future held.

When he arrived at the Capitol, Fallin’s legal team had asked for a research assistant to help outline a path forward for justice reform on a shoestring budget. The job could have turned into a post as a glorified intern, but Luck didn’t treat it that way and neither did his colleagues.

The report he issued was substantial and, even more importantly, the process of drafting it had brought together a collection of interests in the business, faith-based, and political communities and opened up lines of communication.
A year after finishing his fellowship he found himself acting as Oklahoma’s de facto criminal justice czar—becoming the state director of the Right on Crime Initiative, backed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where he was offered resources by everyone from OCPA to George Kaiser.

In his new role, Luck continued to act as a liaison to the governor and was a major player in Fallin’s Oklahoma Justice Reform Steering Committee and its various subcommittees.

Those task forces—which encompass areas such as policing, treatment, reentry, and sentencing—are widely credited with reenergizing justice reform in Oklahoma. In fact, their members have helped produce and draft all of the relevant criminal justice legislation that was passed and signed into law in 2016. At the center of those committees is Luck—the only member to attend meetings and participate in all four subcommittees.

Former Fallin general counsel Steve Mullins said Luck’s work has made all the difference. “There has always been a large group of people who wanted to do something about over-incarceration rates in Oklahoma,” said Mullins. “The problem was, the DA’s had one solution; the faith-based community had another; the governor and the Legislature had their own ideas, and no one was on the same page. What Adam has been able to help put together is a real coalition of people who work together, who communicate, and who are now familiar with how the relevant agencies—including Corrections, Mental Health, and the governor’s office—all actually function. He’s helped to take this from a philosophical exercise into the realm of the practical.”

Fallin seems to have agreed with this assessment; in January of this year she appointed Luck to the governing board of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, where his reform efforts can be directly integrated into agency policy.

Now, Luck is changing roles again, this time moving to the position of policy director for the E Foundation for Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization chaired by Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb.

Should Lamb run for governor, as is widely expected, it is fair to assume that Luck will play a key role in drafting policy positions and initiatives—among them, criminal justice. It’s also fair to assume that Luck’s work, potentially straddling two administrations, will help lend continuity to the ongoing effort to improve the way Oklahoma’s criminal justice system works.

All of this happened largely by accident. Adam Luck never expected to devote his career to reforming Oklahoma’s justice system. Mary Fallin never expected to create a new policy czar when she hired a research assistant. Luckily, that accident seems to have salvaged the wreckage of the “smart on crime” agenda and once again put Oklahoma on a better path forward.

Alex Weintz leads the communications division within FKG Consulting, an Oklahoma City-based public affairs and government relations firm. Prior to joining FKG, he served as Mary Fallin’s press secretary in Congress before becoming communications director in her gubernatorial campaign and then in her administration.