Oklahoma Female Prisoner Total Keeps Growing

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Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state—about 151 out of every 100,000 women, double the national average. Since 2011 the state’s female prison population has grown 30 percent, the Wall Street Journal reports. The total prison population reached 28,850 in June 2016. Voters passed two measures affecting inmates, and both went into effect in July despite lawmakers’ efforts to repeal them. One reduced some low-level crimes, including drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors punishable by treatment instead of jail time. The second created a fund intended to allocate savings from the classification change to rehabilitation programs, including drug and mental-health treatment.

The Department of Corrections has requested more than $1.5 billion for next year, tripling its current budget of $485 million. More than half of the funds are needed to build two new prisons, said corrections director Joe Allbaugh. The rest would go to operating expenses such as repairing old prisons, funding substance-abuse treatment, and giving pay raises to staff. A $215 million budget shortfall makes it unlikely that the request will be approved. The high incarceration rate isn’t due to an unusually high crime rate. It is the result of extremely punitive laws, says University of Oklahoma sociologist Susan Sharp, author of “Mean Lives, Mean Laws,” a book about the state’s female prisoners. Many states have cut their prison populations by reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and investing in drug and mental-health treatment. In Georgia, which was facing a projected 8 percent prison growth in 2011, policy makers introduced reforms that led to a 6 percent decline by 2015, lowering costs for taxpayers. Oklahoma continues to admit more nonviolent offenders than other states, 48 percent more than its neighbor, Missouri, which has a similar crime rate. It also imposes harsher sentences. In recent years, some counties have increased sentences.

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