WIR’s story is evidence that “justice reinvestment” can work

 Across America, over the past decade or so, some 18 states have developed data-based public policies aimed explicitly at developing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent and lower-risk offenders in the criminal justice system.

Efforts along the same lines began in Oklahoma during the 2011 legislative session, when a framework was created in House Bill 2131. The measure expanded offender eligibility for community sentencing and established new requirements for Pardon and Parole Board members. A provision modifying the governor’s role in pardons and paroles has been stricken in judicial reform. However, H.B 2131 is a starting point for what is deemed a “smart on crime” approach to criminal justice policy.

Models are being developed in several states, including Ohio and North Carolina. Neighboring Texas is more than five years into a reform push that appears to be bearing fruit with lower costs and reduced rates of crime.

In Oklahoma, however, only a handful of private or public programs are already operational that fit into the “Justice Reinvestment” model that House Speaker Kris Steele, Marshall Clement of the Council of State Governments and other officials detailed in their Wednesday (January 10) press conference.

The Oklahoma program that has gained the widest scrutiny – almost entirely positive – is Women in Recovery (WIR), sponsored by Family & Children’s Services in Tulsa. It is deemed an effective private model, operating in cooperation with government officials, that redirects some resources into treatment and related programs as an alternative to incarceration.

Last month, in its third year of existence, WIR held its fifth graduation ceremony. The most recent 15 women to finish the program were the largest graduating group in the WIR’s history. The event was held at the downtown Tulsa Hyatt Regency, a large local employer who has hired several previous graduates of WIR. 

The Tulsa program aims to provide effective supervision in non-prison settings and transformational life skills to nonviolent female offenders who have drug and alcohol addictions. Thus far, there are 52 WIR female graduates, women who have a total of 98 children. Presently, the program is serving 74 women, who have 191 children among them.

Erin Haddock, a WIR graduate and current Hyatt employee, said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, “The program has taught me to be assertive, set boundaries, let go of an abusive marriage and build healthy relationships. I am so happy and grateful for my new life with my beautiful daughter.”

In the words of program literature, women who qualify for WIR must be at least 18 years old, “involved in the criminal justice system and of imminent risk of incarceration, ineligible for other diversion services or courts and must have a history of substance abuse. Women with children have a high priority for program admission.”

WIR works with a one-year program of intensive treatment and services. The program’s explicit goals include successful family reunification and life in the community.

In comments to CapitolBeatOK, WIR director Mimi Tarrasch said of the women graduates, “With hard work and dedication, they have overcome their addictions, reconnected with their families and become productive members of our community.”

Amy Santee is a senior program officer at the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which sponsors WIR. She told CapitolBeatOK, “We honor these graduates for their commitment to improve their lives and the lives of their children and families. The foundation is dedicated to breaking the cycle of inter-generational incarceration in Oklahoma. This program’s success shows there are alternatives to incarceration that hold offenders accountable, improve public safety and transform the lives of families.”
Attendees at the most recent graduation ceremony included family members, district attorneys, judges, public defenders, business leaders, community partners and program supporters.

Tarrasch, who has detailed the program in past interviews and one commentary for CapitolBeatOK, notes that “To graduate, all participants must be drug/alcohol-free, crime-free, employed, actively participating in community recovery support, engaged in reunification plans with their children and meeting all legal and court requirements. WIR includes an aftercare program and two-year follow up evaluation provided by the University of Tulsa.”

In organizational literature, WIR is described as “an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent female offenders, that combines strict supervision with a comprehensive day treatment program. Services include comprehensive case management, supervised visitation with children, job search assistance, substance abuse treatment, employment and vocational training, housing placement, medical services, counseling and life skills training and community integration.”

Santee, who served on the working group that worked on the report unveiled at the state Capitol today, has worked directly with WIR since its creation.

In comments at the December 14 graduation, she told attendees that “Leaders from around the state recognize that our criminal justice system is in need of repair. They recognize that sending these 15 women away to prison for a collective 75 or more years is not a sound strategy, it is expensive, ineffective and devastating to families.

“I am hopeful that our state leaders will continue to make improvements so that other women and children around the state can have similar opportunities to the women here today. So, … we celebrate our community’s generous support and critical assistance in dealing with this complex problem. And we honor the women graduating today ‐‐ the 15 women who stand before you with the courage to share their stories and to confront their fears. We applaud their commitment and perseverance to break free from their past and to create better futures not only for themselves but also for their children.

 Santee observed, “For individuals involved in the criminal justice system, the barriers to success are great. The success of this program and the women graduating today is a result of the overwhelming support of this community. Individuals who have volunteered their time, non‐profit organizations that supplement the core programming, advocacy groups (such as Oklahoma Academy, OICA, Women’s Collation) that raised this issue long before the foundation or Family & Children’s Services became involved, businesses, such as the Hyatt that have offered our women employment opportunities so that they may support their families.”

Speaker Steele has been a leading champion for WIR.

In a video interview with CapitolBeatOK, Steele spoke about accountable alternatives to incarceration in the criminal justice system. (Note: The interview covered several issues. Steele’s comments about WIR begin at about the 6:05 mark of the interview).

The Shawnee Republican observed, “About three years ago, I led an interim study. We were able to identify what we already know, and that is that in Oklahoma we incarcerate women at over twice the national average, per capita. I really had to ask myself why we do that.

“I had to ask what is the answer for our high incarceration rate, particularly as it relates to low-risk, non-violent female offenders. Through the course of that study, I had the opportunity to visit Women in Recovery in Tulsa.

“It literally changed my life. I saw women who would otherwise be incarcerated, in a program giving them the skills that they needed to go on and lead positive and productive lives. In addition, it was saving money. It was at a more affordable rate, producing better results with less money.”

His study of the group, and participation in some events, persuaded him at the time, “this was an answer. We began to really dig deep and understand what it is that is causing Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate. The truth of the matter is that nearly 60 percent of the female offenders who are currently incarcerated are deemed or classified as low risk and non-violent offenders.

“We know that if we have appropriate and effective community-based programs, … that would require intense supervision but would also provide the skills necessary that may be missing from a person’s skill set – skills such as substance abuse treatment, parental skills, financial skills,  job training and things of that nature – that we could equip these individuals to literally go on and lead positive and productive lives, and be contributing citizens to the state Oklahoma. That is what most, or nearly all of them, want to be able to do.”

With the new Justice Reinvestment paper, and in legislation he is now drafting, Speaker Steele said, “We are developing policy … that will allow us to achieve that goal. The goals are to increase public safety, to make better use of our state’s public resources and ultimately to produce better outcome in the lives of these individuals.”