More than 3,000 women are serving time in Oklahoma, which for 25 years has led the nation in locking up women. The state imprisons 151 out of every 100,000 women, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics – more than double the national rate. The Frontier and Reveal, of the Center for Investigative Reporting, spent more than a year unearthing the causes. The reporting included obtaining a decade’s worth of state prison data never before analyzed by the state itself. The most common reason women end up in prison is drug possession. Oklahoma dealt out ever-longer sentences for these women, even as other conservative states reduced drug sentences as part of criminal justice system overhauls.
In Tulsa County, women’s sentences for some drug crimes decreased over the past seven years. That’s where an intensive program funded by oil billionaire George Kaiser’s foundation works to provide alternatives to prison for women facing long sentences for drug offenses and other crimes. The burden of the state’s high incarceration rate falls hardest on women of color. Black women are incarcerated at about twice the rate of their representation in the state’s adult population. For Native American women, the disparity is almost three times their share of the population. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin called the state’s No. 1 ranking “a dubious honor … not something I’m proud of.” State voters got tired of waiting for lawmakers to act and passed reforms that became effective in July making possession of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor. It’s unclear how deeply the state understands the problem, because it took a year and a half for Reveal to obtain a workable database to analyze.