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Oklahoma's 'mean' laws to blame for high female incarceration rate, sociologist says

An OU sociologist reviewed Oklahoma's drug laws during a forum on female incarceration calling them “mean” and claiming the state's tough-on-crime sentencing guidelines are to blame for nearly all of the women serving lengthy prison terms.
by Andrew Knittle Published: October 10, 2013

Oklahoma has “mean” laws, provides little help to addicts and the mentally ill and is full of tough-on-crime politicians who are not concerned with rehabilitating criminals, an OU sociologist said Wednesday during a forum on female incarceration.

In recent years, Oklahoma has held the distinction as the state that locks up women at the highest rate in the nation.

Susan Sharp, a University of Oklahoma sociology professor who has been studying the state's high rate of female incarceration since the 1990s, was highly critical of Oklahoma's drug laws, calling them “mean” and overly punitive. She said the state's tough-on-crime sentencing guidelines are to blame for nearly all of the women serving lengthy terms in state prison.

Sharp said women usually end up in prison due to three factors: Coming from a poverty-stricken background, being in relationships with men who engage in criminal behavior and suffering from a long history of abuse.

“We've ignored these families for generations,” Sharp said.

As girls growing up in these environments become women, they usually fall into a criminal lifestyle due to one of the three “pathways,” Sharp said.

Sharp said too many women are being sentenced to lengthy prison terms for having quantities of drugs that would bring little to no punishment in other states.

She also spoke out against drug traffickers being forced to serve 85 percent of their sentences when drug rehabilitation would do more good at a lower cost to the state.

“It's the way we define drug trafficking (in Oklahoma) ... if you're arrested with five grams of crack cocaine, you can be charged with trafficking,” Sharp said.

“So they have this long sentence and they have to serve 85 percent before they start accruing earned credits.”

Yousef Khanfar, an award-winning photographer who has spent years photographing and interviewing women in Oklahoma's prison system, also commented on the state's tough sentencing laws following Sharp's comments.

“In Chicago or other places, if they found you had five (grams of crack cocaine), they would flush it down the toilet,” Khanfar said. “Not here, they give you 25 years in prison for trafficking.

“If you put somebody in prison for 25 years, that's $2 (million) or $3 million. If you put them in rehab for a year, it's like $50,000.”

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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