Oklahoma Gov’s Latest Justice Reform Crusade: Women’s Incarceration

Anders Hagstrom | Justice Reporter

GOP Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin slammed female incarceration rates at the Women Unshackled conference in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, continuing her longstanding push for criminal justice reform in her state.

Fallin has made justice reform a priority for her administration, advocating for eight reform bills this spring, only one of which made it to her desk. Now, Fallin is setting her sights on Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate, the highest in the nation, according to her opinion published Wednesday in The Oklahoman. (RELATED: Five Oklahoma Justice Reform Bills Killed By Single Representative)

“Many of these women have been victims of serious crimes themselves — they’ve been physically or sexually assaulted, or they’ve experienced domestic violence or stalking,” Fallin wrote. “Unfortunately, these victims often turn to illegal actions to cope, from drugs to self-medicate or petty theft to provide income — all actions that lead to our justice system.”

The governor advocates for softer sentencing for non-violent offenders in order to empty overcrowded prisons and lower costs for taxpayers. Oklahoma currently has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, just behind Louisiana. With Louisiana passing a massive 10-bill justice reform package this spring, the state is expecting a 10 percent drop in prison populations over the next decade, putting the spotlight on Oklahoma to adopt reforms.

Fallin recently led her state to partner with Women in Recovery (WIR), a nonprofit organization functioning as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders. The program focuses on treatment, rather than punishment, to reduce recidivism. It has “participants” who “graduate,” rather than inmates who get released.

“We help women conquer their drug addiction, recover from trauma and acquire the essential economic, emotional and social tools to build successful and productive lives,” WIR’s website reads.

Oklahoma pays the organization up to $22,000 for every offender that goes through the program and doesn’t end up in prison within the next four years, News OK reported Wednesday.

Fallin argues the program is both cheaper and more effective than imprisonment, as Oklahoma spends $30,000 a year to house a female inmate. WIR said in 2016 that only 9 percent of its graduates have returned to prison after graduating, while the female recidivism rate of Oklahoma’s prison system is 13 percent.

“Smart-on-crime policies for nonviolent, low-level offenders while keeping dangerous violent offenders locked up, addressing substance abuse, and establishing more diversion and treatment programs are all critical to building safe, healthy and prosperous communities,” Fallin wrote.

Fallin’s “smart-on-crime” approach stands in contrast with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ push for “tough-on-crime” policies, focused on increasing sentences and establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Sessions argues that the most effective way to combat surging drug use and trafficking is the put offenders in prison.

The attorney general issued a directive to Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors in May ordering them to pursue the most severe sentences possible against drug offenders, reversing a previous Obama-era policy.

“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us,” the order read.

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