Dr. Susan F. Sharp is the L. J. Semrod Presidential Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. She has conduced extensive research on the criminal justice system and is the author of numerous reports on female prisoners and their children.
Oklahoma’s high female incarceration rate is harming our state. If our state had an exceptionally high crime rate, we might be able to justify having the highest per capita incarceration rate of women in the United States. Indeed, our female incarceration rate of 132 per 100,000 is nearly double the national average of 68 per 100,000. But, our crime rate is not double the national crime rate. We rank 17th in violent crimes, and our violent crime rate is very similar to the national average. So, we are not incarcerating women as a matter of public safety.
So, why is our incarceration rate so high? It has to do with our laws and public policies. First, in most jurisdictions, a sentence of one year or less is normally served in the community, either in the county jail our through some type of community sentencing such as serving weekends, community service, or night-time incarceration. But, in Oklahoma, we routinely send women (and sometimes men) to prison for very short sentences. This is not cost effective, as the Department of Corrections has to assess each prisoner received, even though the women frequently do not stay long enough to receive any rehabilitative services. We are also one of few states where the Governor has the final approval of prisoners paroled, after a Pardon and Parole Board has made its recommendations, creating a bottle-neck in the parole process, as recommendations may sit on the Governor’s desk for weeks or even months while his or her staff vets each one. Finally, our approach to truth-in-sentencing has expanded far beyond its original intent. While the 85% rule may make sense in the case of violent crimes, it makes far less sense to sentence those who are at the bottom of the drug distribution industry to excessive sentences of which they must serve 85% before becoming eligible for parole or even prison programs in some cases.
Oklahoma citizens would do well to understand just who these women are and why we are locking them up. Nearly half are in for low-level drug offenses. Others are incarcerated for low-level property offenses. Furthermore, the women themselves have horrific histories of abuse, which has contributed to drug use and mental health problems. (For more information, read No Sympathy: Study of Incarcerated Women and Their Children 2010 and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Female Offender Operations Annual Report 2009.) The majority are mothers who were the sole caregivers of minor children before they went to prison. By incarcerating them, we are not only adding to our budget crisis due to spiraling costs for corrections, but the children and their caregivers become collateral damage. Families are disrupted, and the children suffer.
It would be more humane, and indeed more cost effective, to provide more intervention and prevention services rather than a knee-jerk punitive response because our collective conscience has been offended by their drug use. That would mean providing more community mental health services and drug treatment, more diversionary programs, and more programs to strengthen these already fragile families. It would also make more sense fiscally to treat the underlying causes of the criminal behavior so that these offenders can become productive members of our society rather than drains on the system. Finally, unless we re-examine our current policies and laws, it is almost guaranteed that we will create an even larger population to incarcerate in the future as a result of the harm done to the children.
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