Last year, female inmates accounted for 7 percent of all prisoners in state and federal facilities — the highest rate since the U.S. Department of Justice started keeping records, says Stateline.org. In Oklahoma, 129 out of every 100,000 females living in the state are incarcerated — about twice the national average and more than 10 times the rate of a few states. “The question came up in a committee: ‘Are women just meaner in Oklahoma?'” said K.C. Moon of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center, which studies law enforcement issues for the state. While that theory got a few laughs, Moon says the reasons are more systemic. Oklahoma deals with low-level crime more harshly than other states, he said. In addition, the state spends significantly less money on social programs such as child care and drug treatment, driving many poor women to deal drugs and shoplift to feed their addictions or support their families.
A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, who recently chaired an Oklahoma commission to study this issue, said sentences were not only fair, but equitable. “Oklahoma is simply tough on crime,” said the spokesman, Tony Vann. “Other states are often more lenient with female offenders versus male offenders. Oklahoma is less inclined to consider gender in prosecuting individuals.” In California, Stephanie Covington, who studies female incarceration at the Center for Gender and Justice, said corrections officials are beginning to understand that female inmates do not have the same needs as their male counterparts. She said prisons are finding better ways to bring together incarcerated mothers and their children. “Fifteen years ago, they (the number of female inmates) were small enough that we weren’t looking at them at all. Now we’re looking at them and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We can’t give the women what we’re giving men.’ They’re not the same population,” she said.