Local Summit Focuses On High Female Incarceration Rate

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An upcoming summit will tackle the issue of Oklahoma’s nation-leading female incarceration rate.

The summit is part of Oklahoma Christian University’s Complex Dialogues series, and will be held at the campus on Tuesday, Jan. 26. The George Kaiser Family Foundation and Don and Donna Millican are helping to sponsor the event.

This is an important issue for Oklahoma, and one that I’ve been writing about for a long time. Last September, I published a commentary in the Oklahoma Gazette that began by asking a couple of basic questions.

Why in the world does Oklahoma lead the nation in the number of women incarcerated on a per capita basis? Do state leaders really want that distinction?

The numbers, as I pointed out in the article, reveal flaws in our state’s overall justice system.

The numbers tell a truly sad story: There are approximately 2,600 women imprisoned in Oklahoma, which reflects a rate of 131 per 100,000 residents. The national average is 69 per 100,000 residents. This makes Oklahoma No. 1 in the nation for female incarceration, which is a dubious ranking.

Most of the women incarcerated are serving sentences for non-violent crimes, many of them related to drugs.

Does Oklahoma have a cruel system when it comes to female incarceration? If so, does this cruel system only increase social problems when the children of incarcerated women find themselves without their mothers for extended periods of time? How does the system affect the state’s image?

The high cost of incarceration compared to other types of sentencing is another pressing issue, especially given the state’s current financial crisis. Parole and treatment programs are less expensive and help keep families intact.

The main problem, which the summit is sure to address, is that no one—prosecutors, judges and politicians—wants to appear to be soft on crime. How can the state reconcile the issue? What can it do to depoliticize some aspects of the system? Obviously, the system can never be completely depoliticized, but locking up women at the highest rate in the nation means something has gone awry here.