Despite years of concern over Oklahoma’s high rate of female incarceration, the number of women sent to prison jumped again in the latest fiscal year.
In fiscal 2016, which ended June 30, the number of women sent to Oklahoma prisons rose by 9.5 percent, from 1,593 to 1,744, data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows. The total men imprisoned that year fell by about 1 percent, to 8,282. Statewide, the number of incoming offenders increased by less than 1 percent.
One dramatic exception was Tulsa County, which sent 24 percent fewer women and 15 percent fewer men to prison last fiscal year. The drop over the past two years there was 49 percent for women and 30 percent for men. Tulsa County inmate advocates and criminal justice officials attribute the decline to a widely coordinated effort to provide diversion and treatment programs.
Oklahoma County was racing in the opposite direction. Last year the county sent 33 percent more women and 5 percent more men to prison, compared with fiscal 2015. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said a major factor could be state funding cuts to mental health services and public safety.
All other counties combined sent 10 percent more women to prisons.
As of Aug. 29, state prisons were at 107 percent capacity, according to the Corrections Department.
The department has taken steps to accommodate the growing prison population, including leasing more private prison beds, installing temporary bunks to house inmates, and, more recently, leasing an empty private prison in Sayre to keep offenders.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature approved measures intended to reduce incarceration rates. The bills, signed by Gov. Mary Fallin, lowered penalties for felony drug possession, increased the threshold for property crimes to be considered a felony and expanded specialty diversion courts.
Voters will weigh in on similar proposals on the Nov. 8 ballot. State Question 780 would reclassify some basic drug possession and property crimes as misdemeanors, and if that generates savings by reducing the number of people incarcerated, State Question 781 would direct the money to county treatment and rehabilitation programs.
Kris Steele, former House speaker and chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, which is promoting the measures, said the recent incarceration numbers indicate a lack of preventative programs.
“We don’t do enough on the front end to address the pathways to incarceration for female offenders,” Steele said. “If you look at the statistics, there are common pathways among female offenders. It’s abuse, violence, unresolved trauma, addiction, poverty, a lack of education, lack of self-esteem.”
Steele said the increase in female inmates is especially troubling because most women sent to prison are mothers, and their absence at home helps perpetuate a generational cycle of incarceration.
The state questions have drawn opposition from some prosecutors, who say the changes would relax penalties too much for possession of serious drugs such as cocaine and meth.
Prater said he is unsure of what is driving the state’s overall increase in women being sent to prison, but it’s likely due to a complex combination of factors.
“It’s really hard to take a snapshot and say it’s up a little bit or down a little bit and either panic or pat yourself on the back,” Prater said. “You’re dealing with a fluid situation.”
While pinpointing the exact cause of the increases is difficult, a major component could be state budget cuts to the criminal justice system, he said.
“All funding has been decreased for substance abuse services in the state, mental health services in the state, all of our diversion courts have been hit, so yeah, it has an impact,” Prater said. “We’ve been telling them you can’t continue to not fund core services in your state and act like it’s not going to have an impact.”
John David Luton, assistant district for Tulsa County, attributed its decline to a greater focus on alternatives to incarceration across the county’s justice system, including judges, district attorneys, treatment providers, public defenders and law enforcement.
“We’re all working together as a group and realizing, clearly not everyone needs to go to the penitentiary,” Luton said. “Our whole goal we should have as a society is prevention if we can, and then on the back end, doing this – trying to teach and help those who have found themselves in the system as a result of these issues we are trying to deal with.”
Luton said Tulsa County is unique, in that it has many treatment providers and a robust system of specialty courts, including drug, mental health, DUI and veterans’ courts.
“We enjoy those resources,” Luton said.
Luton singled out one program for addressing imprisonment of women. Women in Recovery, run by the nonprofit Family and Children’s Services, provides both treatment and life-skills training and development to women who face serious charges and would otherwise be in prison. Women in Recovery is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. (The foundation is a major supporter of Oklahoma Watch.)
“We can’t speak to it statewide yet, that we have moved the needle, but we are really proud of the fact that, according to the DOC statistics, there has been a 24 percent decrease in female receptions (from Tulsa County),” said Mimi Tarrasch, program director for Women in Recovery. “That is huge.”
Often, women at risk of prison have had a lifetime of sexual or physical abuse, family dysfunction, mental health or substance abuse problems, lack of education, early pregnancies and unemployment, Tarrasch said. Helping drive the state’s high incarceration rate for women is the ease of entry into the system and the high barriers to exiting it without ever returning, she said.
“It’s very easy to get a felony, it’s very easy to enter the criminal justice system,” Tarrasch said. “Then … it’s very difficult to exit the system because you still have your addiction, all of the untreated trauma, but now you have a felony conviction, fines and fees, and all of these other pressures and barriers.”
Amy Santee, senior program officer for the George Kaiser Family Foundation, credited the program’s success to the close working relationship among all parties in Tulsa County’s criminal justice system, saying it benefits both individuals and the system.
“I think that comprehensive and intentional look at the system every day, looking at numbers, working with judges, talking to partners, talking to judges, talking to DAs, talking to public defenders, is unique to Tulsa County,” Santee said. “I don’t think there is that level of focus and intentionality in the other counties yet.”