April 10, 2011

Judges Defend State’s Incarceration Rate

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Many judges say they are not to blame for the high number of women who go to prison in Oklahoma.

“I was a trial judge for 21 years. I sent a lot of women to prison and there’s not one who didn’t deserve it,” said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Taylor, who is from McAlester.

“And, most of them worked real hard to get to the point of me sending them to prison so … none of this has me too upset,” Taylor said.

Retired Oklahoma County District Judge Charles Owens feels the same way.

“I don’t recall any woman that I sent to prison that it wasn’t justified,” said Owens, who retired in 1998 after 30 years on the bench. “I never thought about it in those terms, whether this is too many women. It never occurred to me.”

Oklahoma on April 1 had 2,584 women in prisons and halfway houses, a Corrections Department spokesman said. Most years, Oklahoma locks up more women per capita than any other state, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics.

The high female incarceration rate has brought about an outcry for reforms.

Current judges are aware of the controversy.

Oklahoma County District Judge Ray C. Elliott specifically mentioned legislators in 2009 when he sentenced a heroin addict to life in prison for shoplifting a $275 purse and a $380 purse. The judge pointed out the woman had a record of theft-related crimes that dated back to 1971. He called her a “poster child” for why it’s OK to send thieves to prison.

A split Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction last year. A dissenting appeals judge, though, wrote, “She is a drug addict who steals to feed her addiction. Most of her convictions, like this one, were for property offenses. While she is a nuisance and a lawbreaker, she is neither a violent criminal nor an imminent danger to society. This life sentence is a miscarriage of justice.”

Trial judges note they alone do not determine if a female criminal goes to prison. Often, a jury verdict is involved or the punishment comes from a plea deal between the offender and the prosecutor.

Judges say many female offenders, particularly those guilty of nonviolent crimes, get probation at first. They have chances to straighten out their lives. When they don’t, the women go to prison.

“The way the system is put together, they almost have to break into the thing before we send them,” said recently retired District Judge Paul Vassar, of Chandler. “They work there way up the ladder. … The fact of the matter—and it’s frustrating—is that you don’t get the message through. Drug addiction must be a terrible, terrible thing. … You reach the point there’s no alternative.”

Vassar also said, “I am concerned that we do send too many people to the penitentiary. But I always thought that it would take a complete restructuring of the Department of Corrections to avoid that.”

One longtime judge from northwest Oklahoma said he would send drug offenders to treatment at mental health facilities but not enough exist in the state.

“I wouldn’t hesitate five minutes to do that with the majority of them that I see. There’s no room in the inn,” the judge said.

Comanche County District Judge Allen McCall said he has had success putting female offenders on ankle monitors instead of sending them to prison.

“I agree with the general premise that we send too many women to prison,” McCall said. “I’ve been trying for the last couple of years to look for some alternatives, like we started using the ankle monitor some more.

“I’ve been doing this 29 years and, in my experience, 90 percent of women offenders are really not threats to society,” McCall said. “”A lot of their offenses have to do with drug habits. A lot of them are single mothers. So I do think there are things that we need to look at besides sending them to prison.”

McCall also said, “We’re running out of space in our county jails and the Department of Corrections. They’re doing the best they can do but there’s just too many.”

Oklahoma County District Judge Kenneth Watson said he, too, turns to alternatives to prison as much as he can particularly with nonviolent offenders.

“Money’s the problem so what do you do? You just have to look for them. There out there, I guess, but you just have to look for them,” Watson said.

Watson also said he does a lot of judicial reviews of prison sentences.

“If I sent them, I’ll bring them back. And, if they have done reasonably well, I try to modify it to … supervision or something like that,” he said.