December 12, 2010

Sentencing Program to Open in OKC

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The Oklahoma City metro area will soon have an alternative sentencing option modeled after Tulsa’s Women in Recovery program.

The Tulsa program was created in response to Oklahoma’s nation-leading female incarceration rate. It offers nonviolent female offenders a way to reform themselves outside of prison.

Oklahoma City’s program is the result of state legislation authored this past Legislative session by House Speaker-elect Kris Steele, R-Shawnee.

The bill, House Bill 2998, authorized the Department of Corrections to create programs designed to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders who are sent to prison.

Like in Tulsa, private and state funds are being used to develop Oklahoma City’s alternative sentencing program for women.

The program would be for nonviolent offenders — particularly mothers who would leave children behind if they were incarcerated.

“We hope to develop an alternative that allows them to join a different life trajectory — one that doesn’t involve prison sentences and becoming a burden to society,” said Bob Ross, president of Oklahoma City-based Inasmuch Foundation.

The foundation is working with the Department of Corrections, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, United Way of Central Oklahoma, Sunbeam Family Services and more than a dozen other agencies and community groups to develop an Oklahoma City-area program similar to Women in Recovery.

Tulsa program to help

The Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation, which started Women in Recovery in Tulsa, is also helping develop the Oklahoma City area program.

Such efforts are welcomed by Gov. Brad Henry, who signed Steele’s bill in June.

Henry said last month that he has “real concerns about the way we enact and carry out our sentencing policies in the state of Oklahoma.”

The outgoing governor urged lawmakers to think proactively as they try to tackle the state’s incarceration problem.

“We talk about being smart on crime, but we just haven’t done enough. Drug courts are great, health programs are great, but those are backdoor solutions,” Henry said. “We’re addressing the problem after the crime is committed, after the damage is done.”

As governor, Henry has reviewed thousands of parole applications. While crimes are many and varied, Henry said nearly every prisoner asking for parole has at least one thing in common: addiction.

“I would estimate as high as 95 percent of them have some drug or alcohol or substance abuse,” Henry said. “Even though they may have been incarcerated for, say, a burglary or a robbery or something like that, if you delve into it, the underlying cause is they were doing it as a means to support their addiction.”

That’s why Henry thinks substance abuse prevention efforts are crucial to reducing the state’s incarceration rate and, in turn, alleviating its prison problems.

“There aren’t any easy ways to do this, but I believe it can be done. It’s going to take some concentrated effort and some dollars.”