Progress in the midst of peril: Oklahoma’s ReMerge program graduate looks forward to ‘a positive, productive life’

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma City has now duplicated an acclaimed Tulsa program aiming to keep first- and second-time female offenders out of prison. An emotional and upbeat first graduation ceremony for “ReMerge” drew a large crowd to the History Center northeast of the state Capitol. 

ReMerge and Tulsa’s Women in Recovery demonstrate the effectiveness of treatment and accountability in place of long sentences for at least some non-violent offenders. Lift-off in the capital city comes even as some policymakers are stepping away from legislation intended to shift government resources away from incarceration of non-violent offenders, toward proven treatment and restitution.

ReMerge and Women in Recovery are private-sector groups working closely with all aspects of the criminal justice system.

The “justice reinvestment” concept often covered by CapitolBeatOK and includes but is not limited to programs such as these. 

When justice reinvestment concepts first entered into the discussion of Corrections and criminal justice issues, it had a share of critics across the political spectrum. That may still be the case, in light of a change in the administration and implementation of the program that has unfolded in recent weeks. As late as 2009, some analysts considered the concept unproven in rigorous academic studies. 

While many conservatives have embraced the ideas in justice reinvestment, there remains a cadre of elected officials who fear embrace of the concept might weaken their reputation as “tough on crime.” Some consider JR merely a redo of restorative justice models from the 1980s, while scattered critics from the political Left decry the focus on saving taxpayer resources and lowering costs.
Evidence from several states, including Texas, has persuaded policymakers across the spectrum that JR policies – alternatively deemed “Smart on Crime” or “Right on Crime” – can redirect at least some resources in the system, salvaging lives that would otherwise be lost to the “graduate schools of crime” in many maximum- and medium-security facilities. 

Tricia Everest, a ReMerge board member, served as M.C. at this week’s first-ever graduation ceremony. Other speakers at the event included Kris Steele, he former speaker of the state House of Representatives.

She summarized the project’s purpose as “a female diversion program designed to transform pregnant women and mothers facing incarceration into productive community citizens.”

Terri Woodland, director of ReMerge, outlined what makes such efforts effective. Concerning her “clients,” as she calls them: “Many come from dysfunctional families where one or both parents also were addicted to drugs or alcohol, struggle with mental health issues or were divorced or incarcerated. Most have no means of transportation, no safe place to live, poor work history and no income.”

In many cases, “women enter the criminal justice system differently than men. … Recognizing the barriers women face when raising children alone, we can provide appropriate treatment and services to increase the chances of success for each participant and subsequently, break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.” 

ReMerge staff typically works with a woman for one year. Programmatic approaches can be personalized to provide the practical support she needs. 

ReMerge coordinates access to public Mental Health services and private entities such as mental health provider NorthCare: “Sixty to 80 percent of females incarcerated have co-occurring mental health and substance abuse treatment needs. Sixty-five to 70 percent report child physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence. More than half report a history of family dysfunction and instability.” 

Each story is unique, as demonstrated in “testimonies” from ReMerge’s first four graduates. One, Lacey Copenhaver, said that despite a wholesome upbringing, she lived with “deep sadness” – ultimately diagnosed as “chronic severe depression with anxiety.” 

While she obtained a GED, Lacey left high school in tenth grade, and by the age of 18 was a single mother with two children. 

When my children were 6 and 7, a situation beyond my control happened and the kids were placed in DHS custody for an investigation. I feared for my children’s safety and wellbeing and impulsively stole them back. I was facing 10-20 years for child stealing and larceny of an automobile,” Copenhaver recounted.

Afforded the ReMerge option as an alternative to prison, she said it “has given me the tools and knowledge I have needed. I now have positive coping skills and support to help me overcome challenges.” As she leaves ReMerge, Lacey is “gainfully employed. Yes, I still have a disorder, but thanks to ReMerge, I can live a positive, productive life. … I have regular visits with my children and look forward to getting custody back.”

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