The Pryor Times

March 20, 2014

Oklahoma ranks first for women incarcerated


Sen. Sean Burrage

PRYOR, OK — Long before I was ever elected to the Oklahoma State Senate, policy makers were wrestling with the state’s dubious distinction of locking up more women per capita than anywhere else in the United States. It’s added to a prison system that is already over-burdened and underfunded.

Oklahoma’s women incarceration rate was the subject of an in-depth task force report completed in 2004, chaired by then Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin. The task force examined the multiple factors that contributed to the high number of women who were incarcerated, including women who were increasingly being convicted on drug crimes and who were addicted to drugs. It looked other factors, including a history of physical and sexual abuse as well as domestic violence. About a third didn’t have even a high school diploma or GED. Nearly half had received social assistance and most were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. The task force also documented that the majority of these women were mothers.

It’s been 10 years since that very detailed report and its recommendations were published, and we’re still ranked first in the nation for incarcerating women. But this week, the Senate approved a piece of legislation that could represent a critical step toward finally addressing this issue. I was proud to co-author Senate Bill 1278, by Sen. Kim David, a Republican from Porter, which will enable the creation of a new pilot program to help reduce our women’s incarceration numbers. The model is based on a program that began in Tulsa County in 2009 called Women In Recovery (WIR).

Under SB 1278, the state would be able to enter into a Pay-for Success (PFS) contract with criminal justice programs that have had proven outcomes reducing public sector costs associated with the incarceration of women. Nonprofit organizations provide upfront funding and the state would only reimburse the cost for those women who successfully complete the program.

I’ve long supported alternative, community-based sentencing programs, but the women who would be helped by this PFS program wouldn’t qualify for things like Drug Court.  Another important difference is that this represents a comprehensive approach that addresses many of the long-standing issues that brought those women to that place in their lives to begin with—issues like childhood abuse and trauma, and having grown up in an environment where they learned few, if any, basic life skills. They receive intensive therapy, life skills, substance abuse treatment and other services that make it possible to actually change their lives. Just as importantly, their children receive services, including counseling, to help ensure they do not follow in their mother’s footsteps.

Tulsa’s WIR program has seen about a 68 percent success rate in terms of successful completion, and of those who do, their recidivism rates are about half of those who haven’t been through WIR. Simply put, this has the potential to help us break cycles and stop the revolving door of non-violent female offenders who would otherwise simply return to prison.

I believe this legislation presents a solid opportunity for us to finally begin dealing with women offenders that will have positive results for the state, for taxpayers, for the women themselves, and their children.

Thanks again for reading my “Senate Review.” If you have any questions on a legislative matter, please do not hesitate to contact my Senate office at the Capitol by calling (405) 521-5555 or writing me with your concerns at: Sen. Sean Burrage, 2300 North Lincoln Blvd. Rm. 537, State Capitol Building, Oklahoma City, OK 73105.  I always enjoy hearing from my constituents and consider it an honor to be your voice in the Oklahoma State Senate. May God bless each of you.