In Oklahoma, an alternative to prison for nonviolent women

Mon Mar 25, 2013 10:09pm EDT
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By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - In the law-and-order state of Oklahoma, where more women are incarcerated per capita than any other state in the country, a graduation ceremony on Monday celebrated an alternative to locking up nonviolent female criminals.

Four women who completed an intense rehabilitation program were handed dismissal papers from the Oklahoma County district attorney that dropped the criminal charges that normally would have sent them to the penitentiary.

The hope is that after a year or more of therapy, the four women will turn around their lives and, in turn, avert their children from a path to incarceration.

Some, including Oklahoma's state prison director, Justin Jones, believe breaking the cycle of incarceration by focusing on rehabilitating young mothers is a sensible alternative to prison overcrowding and building more penitentiaries.

"If you really want to stop the growth of imprisonment in the nation and in particular, Oklahoma, you've got to look at the next generation," Jones said.

About 70 percent of the next generation of inmates are going to be the children of men and women now in prison, he said.

"Programs like this are really critical in stopping that cycle of incarceration," Jones said.

But it's a tough sell in Oklahoma, a politically conservative state that executes more condemned prisoners per capita than any other state, including its neighbor to the south, Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.   Continued...

Yvonne Estrada, Lacey Copenhaver, DaChelle Black and Diane Billings (L-R) are the first graduates from ReMerge, Oklahoma County's prison alternative program, in Oklahoma, City, Oklahoma, March 25, 2013. REUTERS/Steve Olafson