One of the reasons Oklahoma leads the nation in the number of women in prison on a per capita basis is that judges and juries continue to hand out harsh sentences for drug crimes committed by non-violent offenders.
These non-violent offenders should receive treatment for substance abuse and basic educational rehabilitation and job training, not long prison sentences, which cost state taxpayers a tremendous amount of money and, in the process, shatter families. Broken families then lead to more substance abuse, and the cycle repeats itself.
The point, of course, is to break the cycle. It has to start somewhere, and the state needs to kick start the process if it wants to save taxpayer money by reducing its high incarceration rates.
Recently, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections appointed Laura Pitman as its first deputy director of female offender operations. Her mission, according to news reports, is to reduce the number of women imprisoned in Oklahoma.
This is a long overdue appointment and initiative. The state now incarcerates about 2,500 women, some of whom are mothers. This is more than any other state on a per capita basis, according to the Department of Justice. The state incarcerates women at twice the national average. This does nothing but sully the state’s reputation as it compounds the problem by weakening families, which, in many cases, are already suffering.
Creating new diversionary programs that help some women stay out of prison will most certainly help, but the larger question is whether the state’s judicial system will reduce the number of harsh sentences given to non-violent, female offenders. Prosecutors and judges in Oklahoma don’t want to be seen as lenient, but they need to work with correction officials if they really want to do what’s best for the state, which sometimes means helping families break destructive patterns. This applies to male incarceration as well. In 2006, Oklahoma was third in the nation in overall incarceration rates on a per capita basis.
The bottom line is Pitman needs support from the state’s court system as she tackles one of Oklahoma’s most urgent issues.
What do you think? Vote on a poll about the issue. Feel free to leave a comment.