America has the dubious distinction of leading the world in the rate at which it incarcerates people for engaging in criminal activity. Of every 100,000 people in the U.S., 655 of them are located in prisons, jails, and detention facilities.
Consider the fact that authoritarian countries such as Russia, Cuba, and China have lower incarceration rates than the U.S. While men make up the vast majority of the population doing time behind bars, a worldwide increase in the number of women committing serious criminal offenses may result in significant changes to the gender composition of prison populations.
Alarming crime statistics from the United Kingdom
Some areas of the United Kingdom experienced a 50% increase in the number of arrests of women suspected of committing crimes. Another British study disclosed a decrease in the number of men confined to prisons around the world, while the number of women occupying prison cells has dramatically increased. Moreover, that number is expected to continue growing at a significant and alarming rate.
As the U.K. and other countries look to a future increase in the rate of female incarceration, that future has already arrived in Oklahoma. The state incarceration rate for females currently stands at 157 of every 100,000 inhabitants, which the Oklahoma Department of Corrections acknowledges exceeds the national average of 57 people incarcerated for every 100,000 members of the population.
Women incarcerated in Oklahoma
The report of a task force that looked into the Oklahoma criminal justice system as it related to the state’s prison population confirmed the disproportionate rate at which women were, and continue to be, imprisoned. It found that most women sentenced to serve time in state prison were convicted of drug-related offenses and that 83% of women in prison were there for nonviolent crimes.
The task force report revealed that mental illness and substance abuse were common among women inmates. In contrast to the 44% of men sentenced to prison confinement diagnosed with some form of severe mental illness, 70% of women in Oklahoma prisons suffer from a mental disorder according to the report. One of the report’s recommendations was to continue funding for mental health and substance abuse programs aimed at facilitating individuals’ reentry into society following their release from prison.
The task force also recommended an overhaul of sentencing guidelines to reduce the rate of incarceration for nonviolent offenders. It also recommended broader use of probation and other community-based sentencing options by judges for nonviolent offenses by eliminating mandatory minimum imprisonment for some crimes.
Preparing women who commit crimes for a return to society
Recognition by public officials that 94% of prison inmates eventually win their release and return to society could go a long way toward influencing the way the state spends money budgeted for corrections. Perhaps it’s time to follow the recommendation of a former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and take the funding used to incarcerate women and apply it toward community-based treatment programs.