A new measure reclassifying minor drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors should cut the state’s nation-leading rate of incarcerating women. But “we’re not going to be able to reverse the trend overnight,” says former House Speaker Kris Steele.
Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate is the nation’s highest and more than double the average. It is the result of tough sentencing laws, zealous prosecutors, and a lack of alternatives to prisons, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Female imprisonments in the state rose 30 percent between 2011 and 2016. Most of the women were convicted of low-level drug and property crimes like fraud or bad checks. Women are just as likely to be arrested in other states for these offenses, says sociologist Susan Sharp of the University of Oklahoma. “But they’re not going to be sent to prison for 5 or 10 or 20 years.” Behind this approach is a conservative culture that takes a dim view of mothers caught up in drug and alcohol addiction. What might be mitigating factors in other places, such as childhood trauma or domestic abuse, fail to sway prosecutors and judges in Oklahoma.
A task force appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin warned this year that the state would need $1.2 billion to add three prisons by 2026 to house a projected rise in inmates. Last November, voters passed a measure to reclassify minor drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The change took effect on July 1. Over time, this should mean fewer women sentenced to prison for these offenses, says Kris Steele, who led the campaign. Another ballot item mandates that money saved should go to treatment programs. Still, it will take root-and-branch reforms to reduce the prison population, given the bias in the system toward punitive sentences, says Steele, a former speaker of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. “Oklahoma did not come to have the highest [female] incarceration rate in the country overnight and we’re not going to be able to reverse the trend overnight,” he says.