Commentary: Subject to Change: She Got Time

Article excerpt

Last Saturday afternoon, while my children and I were piddling around the house, I looked out the front window to see a family friend, Tracey, as her sister pulled up in her car for a spontaneous visit. I was glad to see them. After all, Tracey had been in prison for the last year and was released just three weeks ago.

I know Tracey (not her real name) through her sister, and, over the years, she has become someone who cares about my family, someone who I once helped get a job, and someone who I have very affectionate feelings toward. Tracey was tangled up in a drug arrest years ago and, according to the Department of Corrections online offender lookup, was sentenced to one year for what appears to be a violation of probation for illegal possession of controlled substances. I won't be offering up any judgments here of her behavior, nor her legal case. But we did spend a half-hour in my kitchen, talking about the details of her recent experience. Prison is no picnic.

She described her term (largely at Eddie Warrior in a room with 82 women) as the most degrading experience of her life, details too graphic and humiliating to print here. Tracey, in her early 30s, has a loving mother and siblings; she is not married and has no children. She has hope and has always been an optimist. A former employer helped place her in a new position. In fact, Tracey was on her way to her new job when they stopped by the house.

Tracey is one of the thousands of Oklahoma women who have been sentenced to prison terms in Oklahoma for non-violent offenses - usually drug-related crimes - that have made our state the most likely place for a woman to be imprisoned in the world. Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any state in the nation. Because the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any country (less than 5 percent of the world's human population yet 23.4 percent of the world's prison population), Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any place on the planet.

Why? I asked my friend Arthur LeFrancois. Art is a law professor at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, where he teaches criminal law, procedure and jurisprudence. He also has served in various leadership positions in criminal sentencing reform and has written about this very issue at length.

"It's possible that Oklahoma has the most evil women in the nation (and by the same metric, just about the most evil men)," Art says. "But I think we incarcerate so many women for the same reason we incarcerate so many men. We do criminal justice policy by the seat of our pants, letting slogans be our guides."

I'll spare the citations here in the interest of space. Just the facts: Between 1977 and 2004, the nation has seen a 757-percent overall increase in the number of women in prison. …