Andrea Baker: the face of Oklahoma corrections reform?

At the historic signing of House Bill 2131. In the most significant shift in Corrections policy in modern Oklahoma history, a number of well-known political figures were among the speakers. The bi-partisan group included Governor Mary Fallin and legislative sponsors of the bill from both parties.

A compelling moment came in the speech of Andrea Baker, a 39-year-old woman. Her face, and story, convey better than the best policy analyses the power advocates of the new law see in effective programs for drug offenders that cost less and are more effective that past policies aimed at drug offenses.  

Baker is a graduate of Women in Recovery, a now-acclaimed program that shows the potential of this and other private sector programs, working in cooperation with government, to shift outcomes in the criminal justice system toward lower cost and ultimately more effective programs. Analysts of programs in the WIR model believe the model is most effective for drug offenders, in particular. 

In her speech, Baker disclosed, “I am in recovery from 23 years of addiction to methamphetamine and alcohol, among other things. While in addiction, I lost everything. I never thought I was worth anything more than the addict life I was living.

“Filled with despair, crippled by fear, I had no hope for my future. Feeling trapped and not equipped to handle what was happening in my life, I thought I would always be an addict. I accepted that’s just who I was. As a result, I neglected my family and my responsibilities.

“My parents raised my daughter from the time she was 3 years old. I missed her first day of kindergarten, her graduation from high school and everything in between.

“On April 8, 2009, I went to jail facing two charges of endeavoring to manufacture methamphetamine. Being told I was looking at 15 years in prison, I thought it was the end of my life, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It opened the door for me to enter the Women in Recovery program.”

In an essay for CapitolBeatOK, adapted from her speech at a Capitol event in March, director Mimi Tarrasch of the Women in Recovery group stressed the detailed and meticulous supervision and structure in the program. Observers had concluded that WIR keeps most participants on track to lives free of substance abuse and criminal activity. 

At last week’s ceremony marking enactment of the new law, held in the Blue Room, Baker was unstinting in her praise for WIR, saying, “Women in Recovery has forever changed my life. The structure, accountability, groups, therapy and new life skills that I learned were exactly what I needed.

“The program has helped me to change my whole thought process. From how I view the world, to how I view myself. The program has taught me so much. I now recognize and understand what I am feeling. When problems occur, I am able to process the situation and figure out the solutions on my own. If I can’t figure out what to do, I am not afraid to ask for help.

“The program has taught me how to recognize relapse thinking and when to set healthy boundaries for myself. I am making healthy choices for my life and my recovery.

“The program has shown me what a positive and trusting relationship is. I now have meaningful and supportive friendships. My family has been restored and we are closer than we ever have been. 

“On Nov. 13, 2010, I was able to attend my daughter’s wedding. Fully present, sober and supportive on this joyous family occasion. It is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.

“The program has shown me the importance of giving back to the community. I volunteer my time and help twice a week. I have two jobs and am planning on going to college to become a therapist to help others on their road to recovery.

“I have goals. I trust and believe in myself. I have self-confidence. My life has meaning, and I have purpose. I now know there is life after addiction.

“I thank God for Women in Recovery and my freedom every day. I am so grateful for the opportunity that I have been given. It has saved my life.

“One thing I have learned that is very valuable to my recovery is that I know life is worth living and I am worth living my life. I just graduated the program, and I have been sober for two years, which is the longest I have been sober since I was 14 years old.

“I am the woman I always wanted to be and so much more. None of these accomplishments would’ve been possible had I been in prison. I am a tax paying citizen, a healthy member of society, mother, daughter, volunteer, employee, active in my church and recovery program. I have a car, a bank account, two jobs and I am an entirely different parent.”

In her comments at the bill signing last week, Baker thanked the political leaders who had shepherded the legislation to passage. She also thanked WIR’s sponsors, Family & Children Services and the George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK after the signing event, Speaker of the House Kris Steele expressed deep satisfaction. He noted that the state perhaps most analogous to Oklahoma, Texas, “passed their reforms when they were flush, financially, in terms of tax revenues. They were able to reallocate toward community sentencing and actually save money. They were able to reinvest the public money into treatment, community-based programs and other investments.

“We have a different situation because of our fiscal reality. We will have to implement other reform ideas incrementally. The goal is to take savings, gains from not having as much in incarceration, and put those dollars into programs that work on the ‘smart on crime’ side.” 

He reflected, “The reason the Texas effort, and what we hope to do in Oklahoma, is called ‘justice reinvestment’ is that the idea is to remain tough on crime, take a smarter approach that puts emphasis for the non-violent on education, treatment and prevention of criminal activity.” 

Although he says years of work lie ahead to replicate some of all of the Texas policy experience, Speaker Steele expressed satisfaction at the provisions already enacted as a result of the legislation he pressed with the help of state Sen. Patrick Anderson of Enid. 

H.B. 2131’s provisions include:

1. Expanded offender eligibility for community sentencing programs; 

2. Modification of the governor’s role in the parole process for nonviolent offenders; and 

3. Establishment of new requirements for members of the Pardon and Parole Board.