The Damage Done To Nonviolent Women By Over-Incarceration

The Atlantic sponsored the first of three national forums on the criminal justice system, Defining Justice, in Oklahoma City. In collaboration with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting; The Frontier, an Oklahoma journalism startup; and Oklahoma Watch, they launched an evidence-based discussion on the over-incarceration of women, mostly for nonviolent drug offences; the damage it does to families; and solutions for this crisis.

Reveal obtained a decade’s worth of Oklahoma prison data showing that the most common reason why women end up in prison is drug possession. Since 1991, Oklahoma has had the nation’s highest female incarceration rate (as it has become the state with the 2nd highest male incarceration rate.) And even as the state has finally begun to tackle the problem, ever-longer sentences are being assessed.

Oklahoma locks up Black women at about twice the rate as other adults in the state. The rate for Native American women is nearly three times their share of the population. A state survey found that two-thirds of female inmates reported being victims of domestic violence as an adult, with about the same percentage saying they were physically or sexually abused as a child. More than one-third reported being raped as an adult. Nearly 60 percent of female inmates show signs of mental illness, which is about double the percentage of male inmates. Even so, female drug offenders can be treated by prosecutors as if they were murderers.

Professor Emeritus Susan Sharp says that some Oklahomans “have a notion of ‘proper womanhood’ that can warp the process of dispensing justice.” She says:

I think the general population of the state feels that a woman – particularly a woman who has children who uses drugs – violates all the norms in a way that they find unacceptable … and they would rather see those children grow up in foster care than to be with a mother who had a drug problem.

The Atlantic’s forum was kicked off with Alison Stewart’s interview with Patricia Spottedcrow, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison, after taking a “blind plea,” for $31 of marijuana. The first time offender received that stiff sentence from a judge who “was up front about being fed up with drug use and was appalled the two (Spottedcrow and her mother) sold pot with children in the home.”

Stewart also interviewed Gov. Mary Fallin who “has warmed slowly to the idea of justice reform.” She has recently “pushed lawmakers to approve new reform laws, with mixed results.” State voters acted more definitively and passed two state questions that make possession of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor. Or perhaps I should say that the people have tried to act definitively? It is unclear whether the legislature will respect the will of the people. Also, most of the recommendations of a task force appointed by Fallin were not passed into law.

Oklahoma’s prison population is 78 percent higher than the national average, and is expected to grow by 25 percent in the next decade. Oklahoma has a “three strikes” law that can result in life sentences for drug crimes. Reveal reports, “Today, at least seven women are serving life sentences for drug crimes.” The state also listed more than 30 crimes, including six drug crimes, requiring convicts to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

Even as a bipartisan coalition of citizens, nonprofits, and political and economic leaders are working for reform, across the state the length of sentences for women possessing or distributing drugs has continued to increase, up 29 percent increase in the last decade. The judges in only one county, Tulsa, have led the way in reducing sentences by 25 percent. Less than one-third of Oklahoma women released from prison received the drug and/or alcohol treatment they need. But, Women in Recovery, “a Tulsa-based nonprofit program has received national acclaim,” and nonprofits in Oklahoma City are learning from it.

It’s hard to be optimistic. The state has repeatedly failed to address its structural budgetary problems. Last week’s special session of the legislature didn’t replace the funds lost when a last-minute cigarette tax was struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. If – and it’s a big if – the legislature takes a first step towards stabilizing its finances, we can hope that conservatives, moderates, and liberals, armed with the evidence presented by The Atlantic and Reveal, will carry the momentum over to criminal justice reform.

If Oklahoma decides to continue to starve public education, higher education, mental health and public health services, as well as slashing salaries of correction workers (so that 1/3rd are eligible for food stamps), it will become even more unlikely that the state will properly address the cruel over-incarceration of women.

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