Increasing numbers of conservative legislatures are backing sentencing reforms that divert individuals charged with low-level drug offenses away from prison, says Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.
“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” the Republican governor said during an event streamed live sponsored by the Atlantic magazine in Oklahoma City earlier this week.
“It’s about people (with) addiction or mental health issues who are not criminals and need a little extra help.”
She said the nation’s spreading opioid epidemic should persuade policymakers regardless of their party affiliations to find alternatives to punishment strategies that often end up destroying families and especially take a toll on children.
Fallin said the most common complaint by women she had spoken to who were incarcerated for drug offenses was “being away from my children.”
Fallin joined other participants in the event—the first of a three-part series called “Defining Justice: The Experience of Women and Children Behind Bars,” produced by Reveal, the online platform of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting—in identifying “tough-on-crime” drug laws as a leading cause of the high rate of incarceration of women in the country.
Oklahoma was chosen as the opening venue for the series because it has the country’s highest female incarceration rate: 151 of every 100,000 women are behind bars.
A report produced earlier this year by the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force predicted a 60 percent increase in Oklahoma’s female prison population over the next decade if present policies continue. The state’s general prison population was expected to rise by just 25 percent in the same period, the task force said.
“We need to find a better way,” said Fallin, noting that many Oklahoma law enforcement authorities were “starting to pick up on the notion that there are other options” besides prison for troubled individuals involved with the justice system.
Fallin praised two measures approved by Oklahoma voters last year that have spurred major justice reforms, said The Oklahoman in its report of the event. One made certain low-level crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies, including simple drug possession and theft of items valued at less than $1,000. The other aims to use money saved by incarcerating fewer people to help fund drug treatment and mental health programs.
Other speakers at the live stream session echoed Fallin’s criticism of the nation’s “tough-on-crime” approach to troubled individuals who run afoul of in the justice system.
“We have failed to look at mental illness and drug addiction as a health issue and (have) instead chosen to punish people who have an addiction, rather than treat (them),” said Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), a nonprofit interfaith foundation in Oklahoma City
Steele argued that many state legislatures are pursuing the wrong path with “tough on crime” laws, and they should move to “smart-on-crime” laws that aim to divert troubled individuals to treatment, rather than jail.
Jurisdictions that have already moved in that direction have experienced a decline in the number of women who are incarcerated, the session was told.
In Oklahoma’s Tulsa County, for example, a diversion program for women who might otherwise face long sentences for drug offenses and other crimes has contributed to a decrease over the past seven years in the number of women sent to prison.
The program, “Women in Recovery,” is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, named for a little-known Tulsa oil billionaire. It provides rehabilitative treatment, life-skills classes, and employment counseling to help women recover from substance abuse.
Incarceration rates are even higher for women in poverty and women of color, according to Reveal, which produced its reporting as a part of a year-long collaboration with The Frontier, an Oklahoma journalism startup.
African-American women are incarcerated at about “twice the rate” of their representation in the state’s adult population, Reveal’s analysis showed.
And for Native American women, the disparity is almost three times their share of the population—primarily because of drug offenses.
Patricia Spottedcrow told the seminar she was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison after her conviction for possessing about $35 worth of marijuana. Prior to her arrest, Spottedcrow said, she had never been involved with the criminal justice system.
But media attention to her story helped get her sentence reduced. She spent just two years behind bars.
While Spottedcrow’s tale of early release is unusual, her excessive sentence is not.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, tens of thousands of people have fallen victim to harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, as a result of the U.S. “extreme sentencing policies” which have no parallel in other countries.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler believes that addressing the problem must begin with the children.
“Most women blame their drug issues on their childhood abuse,” Kunzweiler said during the session. “We need to put our money towards helping children who deserve protection.”
“The more money we spend on incarceration, the less money we have to spend on health care.”
Other speakers at the session included Tony Tyler of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Task Force; Sheila Harbert, Chief Community Outreach Officer of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma; and D’Marria Monday, Oklahoma Chapter Leader of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
The next live stream sessions connected with Reveal’s reporting will be held in Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. The first part of the Reveal series is available here.
Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.