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Effects on Oklahoma families another reason to embrace corrections reform

Sep 12, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: September 12, 2014

THE debate over Oklahoma’s corrections policy generally focuses on how the state’s tough-on-crime approach has left its prisons crammed with men and women who are monitored by outmanned, overworked prison guards. It’s a costly, potentially dangerous mix.

One facet of this debate that is too often overlooked is the effect that Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate has on the families of those who are locked up, particularly their children.

No state locks up more females, per capita, than Oklahoma. Overall, our incarceration rate is among the five highest in the country. However many inmates are serving time for nonviolent offenses – from fiscal year 2005 to FY 2012, 44 percent of nonviolent admissions were drug related.

We have written often urging lawmakers to stop looking for ways to be tough on crime, by doing such things as expanding the list of crimes that require offenders to serve 85 percent of their time before becoming eligible for parole, and instead consider a smart-on-crime approach. This would include trying to expand drug courts or increasing funding for mental health and substance abuse programs inside and outside the Department of Corrections.

These can help offenders stay out of prison and contribute to society — and keep their families together. An example of what having a parent in prison can foster was included in a recent story in The Oklahoman about an Oklahoma City school that caters to children whose parents are incarcerated. Justin Jones, former DOC director, helps with the school, which is run by Lone Star Baptist Church.

Jones said that during a visit to a prison while in his former job, he overheard an inmate telling his son, who was visiting, that when the boy came to prison, he would want to be sure to enroll for GED classes. The father just assumed his son would one day wind up on the wrong side of the law.

Statistics are on the father’s side. Children with an incarcerated parent face a 70 percent higher likelihood of becoming prisoners themselves than do children without incarcerated parents.

Even if they don’t wind up in prison, the children of incarcerated parents can face considerable hurdles. According to the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, “parental incarceration is independently associated with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral conduct problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems.”

The school at Lone Star Baptist, called Little Light Christian School, opened in 2012, works on school basics such as math and English, but also teaches manners, respect and works to improve self-esteem. Jones serves as the school’s chairman of the board. “Getting them (offenders and their children) the desire and passion to learn and understanding that education is the key to freedom, is the goal,” he said.

There are other private programs across the state designed to help kids whose parents are locked up, as well as programs aimed at keeping female offenders from going to prison in the first place. The shame is that the need for such programs is so great in Oklahoma.

We wrote not long ago about Gov. Mary Fallin’s office assigning a Harvard University graduate student to spend his summer studying a corrections reform effort that was approved by lawmakers in 2012 but then never fully funded or embraced. The effects that Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate has on the state’s families, particularly children, is just one more reason to give reform another look.

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