Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state: 142 per 100,000. About 65 percent of women there were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. And most of these prisoners are mothers.
Case in point: Samantha Houston-Brown.
An only child whose parents divorced when she was two, Houston-Brown—now 43 with children of her own—grew up feeling very much alone. Her Tulsa upbringing was a comfortable one, but high expectations of parents and long days unsupervised at home eventually took a toll.
“That led me to look for love and acceptance outside of family—with men, with drugs, with people associated with drugs—because they accepted me,” she tells The Daily Signal. She first gave drugs a try at age 20, and before long, she was addicted to meth.
For most of adulthood, this Oklahoma mother has found herself tied to the criminal justice system. She’s lost time, jobs, and the custody of her children. And it was in the depths of her pain and addiction that she realized she didn’t have to be alone anymore.
About nine months ago, she joined Women in Recovery. The program, paid for by donations and grants, enrolls about 100 and 150 women per year. Women go through an approval process for placement, granted they have been charged with a nonviolent crime.
Women in Recovery requires sobriety and entails various forms of treatment, training, and education, from professional skills to parenting. After completing the program, women are granted a delay in their sentence.
“It’s really cool seeing Mom get excited about stuff like normal people do,” says Houston-Brown’s daughter Breanna, 20. “Going through this program, I can see she is starting to love herself more. There is new hope. She has something to live for.”
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin wants to see criminal justice reforms that follow the lead of Women in Recovery. “One of the ways we can change the generational curse,” she explains, “… is to help the parent become a better parent, and prison doesn’t do that. We need to prevent the breakup of the family.”
Former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele agrees with this treatment-first approach. “We can’t give up on a fellow man or woman, our neighbor, because he or she struggles with issues that may be different than the issues we struggle with.”
To that end, the Oklahoma legislature is taking steps to reduce the time mothers spend away from their children. Some of these reforms include:
- Reducing mandatory minimums for drug possession
- Raising the felony threshold for property crimes
- Providing for broader use of drug courts and community treatment
- Developing “data-driven” reforms, with help from Crime and Justice Institute and Pew Charitable Trusts
Nearly one in four adults in the United States has a criminal conviction. For many of them, restoration seems out of reach, simply because current sentencing methods and prison conditions exacerbate the problem. Prison Fellowship believes that a restorative approach is the key to criminal justice reform—one where the victims are a part of the process, those responsible for crimes are given an opportunity to make amends, and communities are strengthened.
To learn more about justice that restores, and how you can be a part of the solution, sign up to be a part of Prison Fellowship’s growing network of advocates working to bring meaningful change to their communities and beyond.