From time to time, we use the OK Policy blog to post submissions we receive from Oklahomans who have interesting perspectives on important policy issues for the state. This entry is from Amy Santee, Senior Program Officer with George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa. The opinions stated below are not necessarily the opinions of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.
Currently, the State of Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state in the nation, a rate of 134 per 100,000, compared to a national average of 69 per 100,000. Tulsa County incarcerates at an even higher rate, 169 women per 100,000.
This practice has a devastating impact on thousands of children around our state. There are an estimated 4,500 minor children in Oklahoma with their mothers in prison. These children are at greater risk of school failure, depression, drug and alcohol abuse. Without a successful intervention, they are likely to become the next generation of inmates at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Incarcerating non-violent female offenders does not make economic sense, nor does it protect the public safety. Is it not better public policy to provide these women with treatment and the tools to become better parents and productive citizens?
George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) has made the issue of female incarceration a priority and has led efforts to make a systemic change to Oklahoma’s statistics. GKFF has invested nearly two million dollars on diversion services, pre-release counseling and treatment, services to children of incarcerated parents and reentry services. In January, the Foundation helped sponsor the Summit on Incarcerated Women as part of the Complex Dialogues series at Oklahoma Christian University, which was an important step in raising public awareness of the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for non-violent female offenders.
GKFF’s principal funding has been in the investment of significant resources on model diversion services, as the Foundation believes that the true value is derived from rehabilitating these nonviolent offenders and reunifying families. Recognizing the lack of viable alternatives to prison for women in Tulsa, GKFF, an organization committed to improving the lives of at risk young children, and Family & Children’s Services (F&CS), Tulsa’s premier family service and mental health provider, co-designed and implemented the Women in Recovery (WIR) pilot program in June 2009.
WIR, based on proven models, offers a cost-effective and holistic approach to diverting female offenders from incarceration in Tulsa County. WIR has already served 33 nonviolent women offenders who together have 73 children. The Program is a true wraparound model, changing the way traditional services are delivered, allowing women the maximum potential to succeed by providing them the necessary tools to regain their independence financially and exit the judicial system. Focusing primarily on substance abuse and mental health treatment, and providing safe housing and transportation from the beginning, each woman’s total needs are met.
In building on the success of Women in Recovery, HB2998 proposed this session by Rep. Kris Steele of Shawnee represents landmark legislation. The bill would establish pilot programs, consisting of private donations and state funds, “to provide diversion programs to reduce the high rate of female incarceration and to provide reentry services that both employ evidence-based practices and techniques.”
George Kaiser Family Foundation proposes including a $500,000 cash match to the state funds. Thus, $1 million will be appropriated to the implementation of a state pilot diversion program and a reentry program. Half of these funds will supplement the work currently being undertaken by Women In Recovery to reduce female incarceration, while the other half will go to the implementation of a reentry programs that will provide support services, employment opportunities and other needed resources for female offenders and their children.
The need for change in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is critical, and the total approach represented by this bill is impressive. HB 2998 passed the full House in February by a unanimous bipartisan vote of 92-0. The bill would still need to pass the full Senate and be signed by the Governor to become law. However, these early successes provide real hopeful signs that the tide is beginning to turn and the issue of female incarceration is beginning to change.