By Isabel Coronado and D’Marria Monday
Oklahoma had its annual State of the State Address this past Monday, February 3rd. In his speech, Governor Kevin Stitt addressed one key area the state is focused on—and rightfully so: criminal justice reform. In 2018, our state had a dubious honor: we were the number-one state in the country for incarceration for both men and women. At the beginning of 2018, we had more men and women incarcerated per capita than any other state in the country, an incarceration rate so drastic that if Oklahoma were its own country, it would have the highest number of incarcerated people per capita in the entire world. But over the course of 2019, with the help of many advocates and impacted individuals, and the governor’s attention, the state was able to commute the sentences of 523 incarcerated people. Now in 2020, we are now in second place in terms of incarceration rates due to the reforms that took place in 2019.
At the beginning of 2018, we had more men and women incarcerated per capita than any other state in the country, an incarceration rate so drastic that if Oklahoma were its own country, it would have the highest number of incarcerated people per capita in the entire world.
Governor Stitt’s proposed priorities in criminal justice reform—as laid out in this year’s State of the State Address—include consolidating different departments within the Department of Corrections, expanding targeted treatment for opioid addiction and substance abuse, and ensuring recently released incarcerated people have the opportunity to reintegrate. While these are steps in the right direction, they are far from enough, and will not proactively keep our state moving down the list.
We are two Oklahomans who were impacted by the criminal justice system—one as a formerly incarcerated woman and one as a child of incarcerated parents. We believe the state’s criminal justice system has so many flaws that need to be addressed. Some of these are the ways in which the needs of women and children who are intertwined with the criminal justice system are often overlooked. That is why we support HB 2019, a piece of primary caregiver legislation that will be re-introduced by Representative Kelly Albright (D-95) this session in Oklahoma. The bill includes several policies to decrease the over-incarceration of Oklahomans, including the following:
- Decriminalize pregnant or primary caregivers who cannot afford bail, allowing them to be released during the pretrial waiting period on their own personal recognizance, to ensure that children are not kept away from their caregivers just because their caregivers are not wealthy.
- Provide services such as drug and alcohol treatment, vocational and educational services, job training and placement, affordable and safe housing assistance, and financial literacy to justice-involved individuals so that their families can heal and advance their lives in addition to dealing with the consequences of their conviction.
- Keep pregnant and primary caregivers who are justice-involved together with children under 18, disabled children of all ages, and elderly parents, through alternatives to incarceration like community supervision.
- Most importantly, allow the court to impose individually assessed sentences for individuals who are primary caregivers, such as mothers, that can better address the root causes leading to incarceration.
One of us, Isabel, identifies as a child of incarcerated parents. Here is what she has to say:
I believe this legislation would have specifically helped me in terms of keeping my mother and I unified. The separation from my mother was traumatizing, hurtful, and interruptive. But this is not just about me—the data shows these are systemic challenges. Last summer, the Tulsa World released a special report titled “Oklahoma leads the nation in childhood trauma.” Parental incarceration is classified as an adverse childhood experience (ACE) for children. This means children of incarcerated parents have at least one adverse childhood experience—but can also experience the many other ACEs associated with incarceration, such as being placed in foster care, parental divorce, and parental drug/alcohol abuse. Multiple peer-reviewed studies connect ACEs, a set of specific traumatic events that occur during childhood, to poor mental and physical health outcomes such as chronic diseases, certain cancers, sexually transmitted infections, depression, and other mental health conditions. Studies also show that school-aged children with incarcerated parents often have diminished educational outcomes, such as poor grades and higher suspension and drop-out rates.
One of us, D’Marria, identifies as a formerly incarcerated woman who is now using her experience to pass important legislation. Here is what she has to say:
Oklahoma has led the nation in women’s incarceration for decades. One of the driving factors of incarceration is pre-trial detention. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, “Oklahoma’s jail incarceration rate is 46 percent higher than the average US state and the state’s pretrial jail incarceration rate is about 54 percent higher than the average state.” That means that every day in Oklahoma, women are arrested and incarcerated at local jails for weeks, months, a year or more—all while waiting for the disposition of their cases. A study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the majority of incarcerated mothers lived with and were the sole or primary caretaker to their minor children prior to their incarceration. The responsibility of providing daily living essentials reduces the likelihood of being able to afford cash bail. Each day in jail is another day to lose one’s job, housing, and even one’s children.
Each day in jail is another day to lose one’s job, housing, and even one’s children.
It’s 2020, and it’s time to change the course of our state. The old way isn’t working and it’s only harming our future. It’s time to break the cycles of incarceration. Make our state a resilient state for everyone, regardless of income, ethnicity, or education level. Our children are our future. Let’s save our future!
D’Marria Monday is a formerly incarcerated woman who uses her voice and experiences to shine a light on the challenges faced by justice-involved Oklahomans. In 2018, D’Marria successfully led a legislative grass-roots campaign to end the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women in Oklahoma. For her dedication and work in spearheading the Anti-Shackling House Bill 3393, she received the Black Wall Street Humanitarian Award of 2018 from the African American Ancestral Society of Tulsa, Dallas, and Houston. She also has been honored as an “Unsung Hero” by the Lacy Park Community Center Council for her legislative work. In addition to her role at OK Policy, a non-partisan think tank, D’Marria serves as the visionary founder of Block Builderz, which offers community-led solutions as alternatives to incarceration, and serves on the board of directors for Racism Stinks and Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice. She graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2018 with a bachelor’s in entrepreneurship and a minor in marketing and management. D’Marria lives in Tulsa with her two sons.