In the 2016 fiscal year, Oklahoma sent more women to prison than in 2015. According to the recently released annual report by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections obtained by Oklahoma Watch Foundation, the number of women sent to prison increased by 9.5 percent, from 1,593, to 1,744 in 2016. In contrast, the number of men sent to prison decreased from 2015 by about 1 percent.
This trend is nothing new for the state. Since 2012, incarceration rates for women have continued to increase, causing the Department of Corrections to acknowledge in its annual report that the state has continued to rank highest in female incarceration. In 2014, the US female incarceration rate was 65 out of every 100,000. In Oklahoma, at the same time, it was 142 out of every 100,000 women, the highest in the nation.
Between counties, female incarceration rates did differ. Tulsa county sent 24 percent fewer women, and 15 percent fewer men, to prison than in 2015. In Oklahoma county, 33 percent more women and 5 percent more men were sent to prison over 2016 than in 2015. Other counties sent 10 percent more women to prison comparing 2016 to 2015.
According to data from the 2013 final report, women in Oklahoma tend to be incarcerated for drug related charges. 52.6 percent were in for drug trafficking or possession. This trend repeats itself across the years. Furthermore, 76.7 percent of women were incarcerated for “non-violent charges.”
Drug trafficking in the state is broadly defined and may include possessing, distributing, transporting or manufacturing a certain quantity of a drug. Often, the amount of drugs found is the sole reason for a trafficking charge. Until House Bill 1574 in 2015, those convicted of trafficking with at least two prior felony drug convictions received mandatory life without parole, one of the harshest laws in the country. Now, if a person has two previous drug convictions, the minimum sentence is 20 years, so long as the previous convictions were not for trafficking. The bill was not retroactive, however.
Kris Steele, the chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Oklahoma Watch that the female incarceration rates are worrisome because of the large percentage of prisoners that are mothers. Their absence helps perpetuate a cycle of incarceration. In 2013, the state’s Department of Corrections estimated that about 85 percent of incarcerated females had at least one child and that about 6,340 children were affected. About 65 percent of these children were estimated to be under the age of 18. According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 77 percent of mothers in state prisons who lived with their children prior to incarceration provided most of their daily care.
The state’s Department of Corrections demonstrated an increase in “problem behaviors,” such as expulsion, dropping out of school, running away, arrests or drug problems, in children since the mother’s incarceration. Research into the effects of parental incarceration can be difficult because “detangling the effects of the parental incarceration from the effects of other factors that could have existed long before incarceration,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. These other factors include child maltreatment, parental mental illness and use of alcohol or drugs and domestic violence.
Several state programs are trying to lower these incarceration rates. In Tulsa, Women in Recovery is one of the more prominent organizations, while ReMerge works with Oklahoma County.
Caitlin Taylor, deputy director of ReMerge, believes part of the cause of the high female incarceration rates is the state’s criminal justice system. “Our state is also hard on crime — we have very strict laws that lead to much more harsh repercussions than other states’,” she says.
ReMerge works with the correctional agencies and government to identify women who are pregnant or have children and are facing a nonviolent felony conviction. The program offers 12 to 24-month treatment programs that include job training, domestic violence intervention, and other components. Upon successful completion of the program, the felony charges are dropped from the participant’s record, which helps to prevent discrimination in jobs or housing.
The upcoming state ballot questions 780 and 781 may provide some changes in the incarceration rates. State Question 780, “Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act” would raise the monetary limit under which property offenses are considered misdemeanors, as well as lower drug possession to a misdemeanor. Question 781 would use the money that would’ve been used for imprisonment without the implementation of State Question 780 for rehabilitation programs.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the group which proposed the ballot measures, hopes the changes will lead to savings that can then be put into dealing with the root causes of these crimes: mental health issues, substance abuse and lack of job training and education. According to Danielle Ezelle, executive director of Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, which works to better the lives of the state’s female population, “two important state questions can change the trajectory of our criminal justice system and therefore Oklahoma faster than almost any other way.”
Given that 26.2 percent of females incarcerated in 2013 were charged with possession of controlled dangerous substances, these questions may greatly affect the incoming prison population. State Question 781 would also provide much needed rehabilitation programs. Of those received in 2013, the Department of Corrections deemed 61.1 percent of women had a moderate to high need for substance abuse treatment, 74.6 percent needed education, which included literacy, adult basic education, or GED needs, and 78.3 percent had a history of treatment for mental disorders.
One solution to the high incarceration rates is creating more rehabilitation programs. By offering more alternative programs or treatment, Taylor believes “we could see a quick decline in our incarceration rates. Also [we could see a decrease] by providing more treatment options to those in the community — so they don’t find themselves facing incarceration later.”
Mental Health in America, a non-profit that works to help those with mental illness and promote better mental health of all Americans, rated the state 45th out of the 50 states and District of Columbia in overall mental health. This ranking means the state has a high prevalence of mental illness but lower rates of access to care.
With or without these ballot questions, Taylor says there are ways for everyone to get involved in lowering incarceration rates. Citizens can work to “advocate for treatment and criminal justice reform, volunteer their time for alternative programs (which are often nonprofits), make a financial donation to alternative program, and educate themselves on substance abuse and mental health disorders.”
“As a state,” Ezelle says, “we must take a smarter, long-term approach” to deal with these issues.