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February 13, 2011

The drug offense (and drug court) part of the story of women in Oklahoma's prisons

As noted in this prior post, a collection of news outlets have come together in Oklahoma to assemble extensive coverage of "Women in Prison" in that state (all of which can be found at this multi-media webpage.)  The latest group of pieces zeroes in on drug offenses, starting with this lead piece headlined "Half of women in prison there for drugs."  Here are excerpts:

Drug-related offenses account for about 12 percent of arrests among females in Oklahoma, and about 50 percent of women in prison are there on drug-related convictions, according to federal and state crime data.

The average sentence in the state for women in drug-related convictions is 5.5 years, according to a Tulsa World analysis of prison sentences since 2000.  Drug court participation in Oklahoma has increased from about 1,500 in 2005 to about 4,200 currently, as more counties add programs....

Oklahoma implemented specialty courts as a method to decrease the number of people going to prison, said Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.  The agency has been pushing the more comprehensive program "Smart on Crime," which promotes specific programs before and after a person is incarcerated.

"We took a step back by one phase," White said.  "We're saying we can step back even further to when contact with law enforcement is made initially or prevent any contact with law enforcement."  The courts are designed to give each participant an individual plan for graduation, which includes home visits, weekly progress reports, random drug testing, and support for obtaining treatment and job skills training.

White said the low re-arrest rate and increases in employment and income among drug court graduates have convinced officials in the criminal justice system that specialty courts work.  But the drawback is a lack of treatment beds statewide.  Between 600 and 900 people are on a waiting list for mental health services each day, White said.

"Drug court offenders do not cut in line because that would not be fair to those who haven't committed a crime and are wanting to get treatment," White said.  "So you may be a person who can't get treatment because you're No. 700.  By the time you get in, you are now in the throes of using again, have stopped taking your medications, have committed a crime or have had contact with law enforcement."

Companion pieces with this story in the Tulsa World are headlined "Tough-on-drugs stance puts more in prison" and "Meth maker turns her life around after prison release."

February 13, 2011 at 04:49 PM | Permalink

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The article notes that, in Tulsa County, almost half of the participants don't complete their drug court term, that is, fail, and this is represented as the norm for all the state courts. Of the almost half who do complete statewide, almost a quarter fail, according to a graph in the story that only includes those who complete drug court. A quarter of a half is 12%-13%. So, roughly 60% or more of the participants in the courts fail, a higher rate than the higher risk inmates released directly to the streets, 100% of whom have "completed" prison, according to the same graph. The drug court failure rate is close to the 2/3rds failure rate of the family highlighted in the story which had been through drug court. So, based on the evidence provided in the story, if the prisons have fewer (and higher risk) offenders failing than drug courts, shouldn't the money really be going to the prisons?

Posted by: Michael Connelly | Feb 13, 2011 7:32:38 PM

Michael,

Except of course that prisons are far more expensive. I can see going with a less expensive solution in cases where the problem is not so severe as to warrant the more costly option, even though the problem remains with the less expensive.

Just how severe a problem drugs pose is, of course, a policy question, one that we as a nation have been struggling with for decades. And one that I don't think we're are going to get a good answer to until there is some fundamental breakthrough in the brain sciences.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 14, 2011 10:06:26 AM

Michael, your comments seem to ignore the cost-benefit analysis of what prison costs vs. drug courts. If prison costs 10x as much to incarcerate a drug offender, 2x the recidivism rate from strong probation compared to prison may still be tolerable if you're looking for the most reduction in crime for the dollar, particularly to the extent "failure" results in only victimless crimes.

Failure in drug courts is a function of monitoring. Someone who completes their sentence in prison day for day and is released without parole supervision has no one looking over their shoulder if they misbehave, whereas in drug courts the state is all up in defendants' business to a much greater degree. It's unsurprising, then, that people who are closely supervised are more likely to be caught misbehaving than those who aren't being so closely watched.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Feb 14, 2011 11:56:23 AM

Maybe you might talk to someone who has been in drug court for over six months. I have an APC and DUI within 10 years so in Oklahoma that’s a felony. The major factor for failure is the court mandated activities are many and expensive. Without method transportation, it is near impossible. Furthermore, you’re expected to have a job. This is not easy since a background check indicated that you are “pending felony”. Who would want to hire someone that might go to prison at any moment?
So before you judge realize that most of these people have the cards stacked against them. Also note that participates who fail do not get an exit interview to determine the reason for failure. Everyone assumes that it has to do with their addiction but in reality, it has nothing to do with that. Reach out to me if you would like, but hurry, I’m running out money to live on and will be thrown in prison soon.

Posted by: George Dunlap | Jun 8, 2011 7:27:41 PM

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