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A state legislator tries to reduce the amount of women incarcerated in Oklahoma


LeighAnne Manwarren March 4th, 2010

Kelly Damphousse, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma and associate dean for the OU College of Arts and Sciences, said it's well known that Oklahoma locks up more women than any other ...

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Kelly Damphousse, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma and associate dean for the OU College of Arts and Sciences, said it's well known that Oklahoma locks up more women than any other state. But he said there are no good statistics on why that is.

"The sense is, the majority of women incarcerated are there for nonviolent offenses with a lot of them being drug infractions," he said.

With that incarceration rate in mind, particularly the incarceration rate of parents, Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, authored House Bill 2998, which has cleared two committees unanimously.

Steele said this legislation would reduce funds needed to incarcerate and could be cost-cutting from a human resource standpoint.

"Statistically in Oklahoma, 70 percent of children of incarcerated parents wind up becoming incarcerated at some point in their life, (turning) it into an intergenerational situation," Steele said.

Steele said he performed interim studies on the subject and looked at the audit from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. The results made him want to see what the state was doing to change incarceration rates.

"The results of the audit showed that we incarcerate more women, nonviolent offenders, for things no other state incarcerates for," Steele said.

The bill, if passed, would establish a pilot rehabilitative program for nonviolent female offenders rather than going straight to prison. The pilot program would partner with the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa, which has already established a program in the Tulsa area.

Mimi Tarrasch, director of Women in Recovery, which was launched with a grant from the Kaiser Foundation, said the intensive outpatient program would be modeled after the Tulsa program already established.

Making this program different from others is the intensity of it. While there are other rehabilitative programs in the state, she said very few have a yearlong expectation. She said the participants go through multiple phases to ensure an opportunity to have a smart and purposeful transition back into society.

Women in Recovery partners with community providers for services such as psychiatry, parenting skills, substance abuse, HIV testing, nutrition education, health and wellness, as well as dental services and transitional housing. Along with offering individual and trauma therapy, the program strives for family reunification for the women and their children.

"(The program) will let them become good parents that they want to be; they may have not been given the skill sets to do that, and so it is highly prioritized," Tarrasch said.

The program is for nonviolent female offenders ineligible for any other alternative- to-incarceration program, meaning they would most likely go to prison, she said.

Damphousse said the key to success for such a program is to find individuals who truly are low risk, both to society and to themselves.

"Many times, with maybe fewer alternatives, a judge has to make the decision of incarcerating the individual with the only other option being probations," he said.

From the financial standpoint, Steele said the Kaiser Foundation will give $500,000 if the state will match it to produce a million-dollar project. He said if just 50 nonviolent female offenders are diverted from incarceration, the program will pay for itself, and any additional women diverted from prison would be cost saving to the state.

"We are at 99 percent capacity of our state incarceration institutions," Steele said. "It merits a discussion, a thought process from the Legislature, to figure out what is a better way "¦ without jeopardizing public safety.

"It is important that we, as a state, find a better way of dealing with these nonviolent offenders," he said. "We can be smart on crime and be tough on crime at the same time."

If passed, the pilot program would run for three years before a final decision is made. "LeighAnne Manwarren
 
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