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Oklahoma children can gain from prison reform

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We write frequently about how Oklahoma’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate impacts the prison system — its aging and badly overcrowded buildings, its outnumbered correctional officers — and on the growing financial toll to the state fisc. Its impact on Oklahoma families shouldn’t be forgotten.

When a man or woman is sent to prison, the effect ripples through the offender’s family, be it their mother, father, spouse or, most importantly, their children.

A state task force created to identify the needs of kids with a parent in prison reported in 2017 that about 4,600 minor children have a mother in state prison on any given day. Susan Sharp, a former University of Oklahoma sociology professor who has studied Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate for more than two decades, has noted that because locked-up mothers are about three times as likely as incarcerated fathers to have been the only parent in a household, “children are often left without parents.”

Thus, it’s safe to conclude that the state’s prison rate no doubt contributes to Oklahoma’s large foster care caseload, which triggers a whole other set of issues.

A 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that in Oklahoma, roughly one in 10 children — about 96,000 boys and girls — has had a parent in jail or prison at some point.

That experience is “of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce, with a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being,” the study said. The separation from a parent, tied to a lack of support elsewhere, “can increase children’s mental health issues … and hamper educational achievement.”

Having a parent in prison is among the “adverse childhood experiences” that burden so many Oklahoma students. According to the state Department of Education, Oklahoma leads the nation in ACEs, which include other traumatic events such as divorce and exposure to violence. No wonder state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is urging lawmakers to approve a package of criminal justice reform bills that deal with nonviolent inmates.

The most publicized of those measures is House Bill 1269 by Reps. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, and Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City. The bill, which made it through the House easily, would make retroactive State Question 780, which voters approved in 2016. SQ 780 reclassified certain low-level drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies; the sentences of about 1,050 nonviolent inmates would potentially be affected if it were made retroactive.

David Blatt, outgoing executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, notes that “there is no left-right divide” on criminal justice reform. Proponents of this package of bills include liberal-leaning groups like his organization and the ACLU, and conservative groups such as Right on Crime and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Impact.

Here’s hoping that lawmakers, in weighing these bills, will consider the significant toll our traditional approach to corrections is taking on families, especially children.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›

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