Dollars and Sense: OK prison reform by the numbers, and in understanding hearts


OKLAHOMA CITY – It matters not if true prison reform comes for practical reasons or for more ethical reasons, or some combination of each.

What matters is whether or not change will happen.

For fiscal reasons, effective alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crime must be nurtured, to flatten or reverse the inexorable costs associated with policies that lock people up for long terms when taxpayers would be better served with lower-cost programs of diversion, treatment and supervision. 

Pragmatic (and also moral) reasoning for reform come from groups like “Right on Crime” in Texas, which has long had the help of former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese and direct mail guru Richard Viguerie. 

In Oklahoma, one advocate of reform is Michael Carnuccio, president of the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs (OCPA). 

President of the Sooner State’s leading free-market think tank, “Nuch” is no squish. This fall, he wrote, concerning particularly the women in Oklahoma’s system,  “An effective, efficient, transparent and accountable corrections system should pay restitution to victims while focusing on getting those mothers reformed and back at home with their children. We need to start getting serious about breaking the cycle, not just throwing more money and cell bars at it.”

Some laborers in this vineyard pull strongly at the heart, like the folks working at ReMergethe program in Oklahoma City.  Started after state reforms enacted in 2010, it aims at fashioning another effective alternative to incarceration for nonviolent female offenders with alcohol and drug addictions. 

The first wave of graduates, 16 women in all, has finished at ReMerge.

They have a total of 41 children. They spent a combined 680 months working through the program.

Had they been incarcerated (an away from their kids), the cost to taxpayers – according to the group’s estimate, albeit one supported by law enforcement officials – would have been about $800,000.

Instead, ReMerge clients (the graduates and those still in classes) were served at one-fourth of that cost. 

There are not enough successful models, but ReMerge is based explicitly on one of the best, Tulsa’s Women in Recovery.

There are four phases, each a minimum of 90 days (and usually longer), customarily taking a year or more to complete.

Those eligible for diversion into these programs would otherwise go to prison, where they would get little or no treatment to conquer addiction and (more fundamentally) to counter habits that put them on the path to trouble in the first place.  

ReMerge will work, but the data also makes it clear that the program can only reach a portion of the women who will otherwise go into prison, to start long sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Which brings us to matters of the heart, and why such models must be enhanced and developed – for the sake of both the offenders and those of us who have stayed on the right side of the laws.

Two years ago, LaQuida, one of the recent ReMerge graduates, was in her late 20s. With four kids, she said last week, she was at that time “hopeless, confused and on the verge of committing suicide.”

A judge gave her a last chance to avoid prison. She completed 15 eminently practical courses in issues like wellness recovery, trauma recovery, “empowerment,” thinking for a change and parenting. Now, LaQuida has her GED and a driver’s license. She’s recovered her family, and a future.

Another ReMerge grad, Valerie, was an addict until she started through the program one year and a couple of weeks ago. Before that, she had been to prison twice, and “it did nothing for me. I was released to home with no job and no support, so I turned to what I knew best to survive – selling and using drugs.”

Valerie had lost her loved ones, and “took for granted every drop of love and support they had to offer me. I was released to home with no job and no support, so I turned to what I knew best to survive – selling and using drugs.”

At the precipice, she learned patience “to love myself,” and was poked and prodded to develop (her words) “structure, responsibilities, accountability and coping strategies. I learned awareness, patience, stress management and time management.” She is now attending college.

Days in the life of a still-hopeful reporter, chronicling both societal decline and corners of hope such as these: Last week, ReMerge and its first graduates. Tomorrow, Women in Recovery at Tulsa’s downtown Civic Center, highlighting its tenth group to cross the finish line, a total of 131 women since 2009. 

These programs each eschew any sort of sectarian focus, yet hope comes from hearing, again and again, these kinds of words:

“My God is a kind and loving God, who has wonderful things waiting for me. I was a criminal, but now I am a humble, understanding person who lives in love and tolerance because these were the things I received in this program. I have goals, peace, serenity — and I have found the God of understanding.”

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