Tulsa Attorney BlogHuman Rights Report Denounces Oklahoma’s Mass Incarceration of Women

Oklahoma Is a Global Leader — In Mass Incarceration

Oklahoma women in prisonDo you want to see what a prison state looks like? Look outside your window.

If you are located in Oklahoma, you are looking at the “global leader in incarceration.”

Oklahoma in 2018 passed Louisiana as the U.S. state with the largest share of its residents behind bars.

The untoward distinction lands the Sooner State at the top of the top – unless bottom of the bottom is a more apt description of the state with the most of its people living as prisoners. And that’s in the nation with the most prisoners per capita anywhere in the world.

Don’t take the word of a criminal defense attorney. Tulsa World called Oklahoma the global leader in incarceration. In article that cast the state’s mass incarceration as a “recipe for disaster,” a state representative who chairs Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, Kris Steele, said Oklahoma’s corrections system is failing to correct people in its custody.

Prison Impacts Mothers and Children

The recipe for disaster Steele described has already been served to thousands of Oklahoma mothers, according to a report prepared by Human Rights Watch and ACLU.

Oklahoma has long led the nation as having the highest proportion of women behind bars. Incarceration of mothers – most often for non-violent crimes – results in insurmountable debt and systematic loss of child custody, the Human Rights Watch report found.

Several factors work against mothers incarcerated on charges that often relate to substance abuse problems, the report concluded. Most women are jailed on minor crimes, yet nationwide, 80 percent of women in local jails are mothers. For them, the time and expense of a criminal justice encounter can make participating in rehabilitation programs prohibitive.

Low income defendants often cannot afford to post bail bond. Oklahoma courts tend to rely on bond schedules that do not consider a defendant’s ability to pay, nor their parental obligations.

During lengthy pre-trial incarceration women can feel pressured to plead guilty to charges they might otherwise contest. Many are more eager to get back to children than to defend themselves against criminal charges.

After a guilty plea, mothers may face onerous costs for their time in jail, medical costs incurred while in jail, probation fees and other court costs. They may be required to attend classes or counseling as part of a re-unification plan after being separated from children while they were in jail. Inability to pay for classes or to comply with suspended sentence or deferred judgment can result in delayed reunification.

Women separated from children face termination of parental rights if a child is in foster care 15 out of the prior 22 months. Mothers might also miss custody hearings while incarcerated. The report says Oklahoma law remains vague about jails’ obligation to transport jailed parents to custody hearings.

Jailed parents can also be cut out of communication with a child because of high cost of making collect phone calls from jail or prison. Communications lapses can also cut parents out of custody decisions.

Although Oklahoma voters have enacted sentencing reforms in bold ballot initiatives, and legislators in 2018 adopted a slate of criminal justice reforms, including changes in Oklahoma’s mandatory minimum sentences, recent reforms are only expected to slow or growth in Oklahoma’s prison population but might not reduce current overcrowding.

Other reforms targeting local jail crowing made some progress. A 2018 bill (HB 3694) would have eliminated money bail for non-violent offenses died in the legislature, a related bill that was signed into law allowed inmates who bond out to have access to public defenders (SB 1021).

Previously, ability to pay bond was considered de facto evidence that a person could afford a private attorney. Inmates often chose to stay in jail pending a trial so they could be represented by a public defender.

ACLU says it has a plan that would reduce prison populations in Oklahoma. The group’s 50-state plan would reduce Oklahoma prison population by 60 percent between 2018 and 2025. The plan for Oklahoma includes

  • reduced sentencing ranges especially for drug crimes, burglary, assault, robbery and public order offenses.
  • expanded parole opportunities for people with good behavior records in prison
  • offering treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues, and social services related to housing, healthcare and vocational training as alternatives to incarceration
  • reducing or eliminating sentencing enhancements for “habitual” offenders
  • reversing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

The ACLU reforms are similar to those advanced by a Justice Reform Task Force Gov. Mary Fallin established in 2016. The commission’s 27 proposals led to several reform bills in the 2017 legislative session. Of those that eventually passed, most took about two years to wind through the legislative process.

The governor’s commission revealed startling facts about the Oklahoma prison population. Only one in four inmates are imprisoned for violent crimes. Of those imprisoned for non-violent crimes, 43 percent are there on a first felony conviction.

New Opportunities to Turn Away from a Criminal Past

While justice reform in Oklahoma has not blazed a certain path to reducing prison population in the state, it has created new opportunities for people to escape the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Reduced requirements for expungment and new opportunities to seek parole open new doors to people burdened with criminal convictions.

Reduced sentencing requirements open doors in some cases to appeal prior sentencing. At a minimum, new sentencing models and new opportunities to participate in diversion programs increase the chances that a person will emerge from an encounter with the justice system better off than before.

Free Consultation with a Criminal Defense Attorney Tulsa Trusts

A person facing criminal charges needs the advice and counsel of a skilled criminal defense attorney. Tulsa prosecutors don’t automatically offer every defendant the most lenient, most sympathetic path to resolve a criminal charge. That is the defense attorney’s job. 

A skilled defense attorney can tell you whether recent changes in Oklahoma sentencing law affect the dynamics of your case. An Oklahoma criminal attorney can determine when you qualify to get old convictions off your record. If you have a loved one in prison, a Tulsa defense lawyer can determine if new opportunities for parole might be available. 

For a free consultation with a criminal defense attorney Tulsa trusts, call Wirth Law Office today for a free consultation. Set up your free consultation by calling (918) 879-1681 or send your request using the form on this Web page. 

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