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Oklahoma judges say they are not to blame for the high number of incarcerated women.

BY NOLAN CLAY Published: April 10, 2011

Many judges say they are not to blame for the high number of women who go to prison in Oklahoma.

“I was a trial judge for 21 years. I sent a lot of women to prison, and there's not one who didn't deserve it,” said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Taylor, who is from McAlester.

“And, most of them worked real hard to get to the point of me sending them to prison so … none of this has me too upset,” Taylor said.

Retired Oklahoma County District Judge Charles Owens feels the same way.

“I don't recall any woman that I sent to prison that it wasn't justified,” said Owens, who retired in 1998 after 30 years on the bench. “I never thought about it in those terms, whether this is too many women. It never occurred to me.”

Oklahoma had 2,584 women in prisons and halfway houses on April 1, a Corrections Department spokesman said. Most years, Oklahoma locks up more women per capita than any other state, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics.

The high female incarceration rate has brought about an outcry for reforms.

Current judges are aware of the controversy.

Oklahoma County District Judge Ray C. Elliott specifically mentioned legislators in 2009 when he sentenced a heroin addict to life in prison for shoplifting a $275 purse and a $380 purse. The judge pointed out the woman had a record of theft-related crimes that dated back to 1971. He called her a “poster child” for why it's OK to send thieves to prison.

A split Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction last year. A dissenting appeals judge, though, wrote, “She is a drug addict who steals to feed her addiction. Most of her convictions, like this one, were for property offenses. While she is a nuisance and a lawbreaker, she is neither a violent criminal nor an imminent danger to society. This life sentence is a miscarriage of justice.”

Second chances?

Trial judges note they alone do not determine whether a female criminal goes to prison. Often, a jury verdict is involved or the punishment comes from a plea deal between the offender and the prosecutor.

Judges say many female offenders, particularly those guilty of nonviolent crimes, get probation at first. They have chances to straighten out their lives. When they don't, the women go to prison.

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