Why does Oklahoma continue to lead the nation in female incarceration on a per capita basis?
Do women commit more crimes here than they do elsewhere? Is it because of strict drug laws? Is it the state’s law-and-order mentality? Is it rigid sentencing and punitive approaches in our legal system?
It seems we’ve all known for years that it’s wrong for Oklahoma to lead the nation in this dubious category of imprisoning women and that it’s a waste of taxpayer money, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough political will to change the status quo.
Recently, a University of Oklahoma sociologist, Susan Sharp, blamed the high rate of female incarceration on “mean” laws here, especially strict drug laws, which often lead to lengthy prison sentences for women here. She also pointed out the lack of more drug treatment programs and mental health facilities.
An interim legislative study about the issue was even conducted last week by state Rep. Kevin Matthews, a Tulsa Democrat, who said in a media release:
I understand that Oklahomans want to see criminals locked up, but we are No. 1 in incarcerating females, because we may be locking up women who would not be considered criminals in other states, and who have unresolved mental, emotional and substance abuse problems. I think that while the state successfully rehabilitates a small percentage of these women, we need to expand successful alternate sentencing and diversion programs. The study also looked at how incarcerating women leads to trauma, financial hardship, social stigmas and instability in their children. Today’s presenters made several policy recommendations that I want to share with my colleagues and see if there is anything we can do to create better outcomes through legislation in the upcoming legislative session.
Note, “. . . we may be locking up women who would not be considered criminals in other states . . .” That’s a key point in this debate.
But can anything really happen in our Republican-dominated legislature to address the issue? That’s the real question. No one can dispute the facts or the basic comparison between Oklahoma and other states. It has resulted in a major waste of taxpayer money and damaged lives. One could make the argument that the lock-them-up mentality actually creates more crime here by turning non-violent offenders into hardened criminals. We actually make criminals through draconian laws and sentencing, creating a cycle that doesn’t get broken.
I’ve written recently about new reports showing how women are not faring so well in Oklahoma these days. The state’s high female incarceration rate when compared to the national average is yet another example of basic discrimination and tells yet another bad story to the nation about how women are treated here. It all adds up, and it’s way past the time to do something about it.