Someone broke them, they broke the law…Women in Recovery an alternative to incarceration

At a Tuesday conference on “Effective Criminal Justice Strategies” held near the Oklahoma state Capitol, leaders of a Tulsa program providing an alternative to incarceration for women meeting specific criteria detailed the methodical approach they take to supervision and accountability of those they are battling to keep out of prison, and in the mainstream of society.

Amy Santee of the George Kaiser Family Foundation decried what she characterized as Oklahoma’s excessive incarceration of non-violent offenders, often women who have drug addition problems. Santee said those she works with in the “Women in Recovery” (WIR) program frequently come from backgrounds filled with physical and sexual abuse, lack of education, drug addiction and family turmoil.

That description certainly fits the past lives of three WIR participants who delivered powerful testimonies about their shift, while in the program, away from deep involvement in the criminal justice system and into productive and tax-paying lives.

Santee observed that incarceration of women has devastating effects on children. She noted that participants in WIR, sponsored by Family & Children’s Services, are women who do not qualify for any other diversion program. Santee observed that women incarcerated are generally without hope, do not see their own children and describe themselves as “dry” rather than “sober” in discussions of their present state. WIR women, she said, are confident, employed, and living in affordable housing while maintaining or reestablishing relationships with their own children. She also said they describe themselves as “sober” when speaking about addiction or abuse challenges from the past.

Santee asserted confidently that “many women going to prison in Oklahoma could do much better in the community,” working in programs like WIR.

In a major address at the conference, co-sponsored by the Kaiser Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and Oklahoma Christian University’s Academy of Leadership & Liberty, WIR director Mimi Tarrasch said the “overarching goal” of the program “is to reduce the number of female receptions into the Oklahoma Department of Corrections from Tulsa County, by offering an alternative to local judges, public defenders and prosecutors.”

According to Tarrasch, the program “promotes recovery from addiction and provides the necessary community and recovery-oriented supports to make a successful integration into the community and reunite with children and families. The program is rigorous due to the performance expectations and requirements around the rules and regulations from multiple entitles.” When given the option to enter WIR or go into incarceration, Tarrasch said, “Some choose prison because they think it’s easier, and they might be right.”

She said the program “is based on an intensive treatment and clinical approach while providing mandatory supervision 24/7.” What she characterized as “a highly structured and individualized program” at WIR includes “substance abuse and trauma treatment, health and wellness, job training and housing.” She said the program design “is very comprehensive in order to address a high level of needed services.”

Established in mid-2009, WIR operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., “allowing weekend hours to be dedicated to employment, visitations with children, support group meetings, community volunteering and case management needs.”

For women involved, project objectives include 1) reducing criminal behavior and thinking; 2) reducing substance abuse and the level of distress caused by trauma exposure; 3) attaining stable and safe housing; 4) providing employment services that lead to jobs that offer a living wage; 5) planning for reunification with children and families; and 6) learning new life skills to help ensure successful community integration.

Tarrasch explained, “We are not a specialty court, we are a program. Services can be accessed through different avenues, including judges, District Attorneys, Tulsa County court services, jail staff, private attorneys, public defenders and self-referrals.” The program, she stressed, “was developed to operate within the existing criminal justice system.”

Eligibility is limited to women who are 18 years of age or older and at imminent risk of incarceration, involved in the criminal justice system and ineligible for other diversion services or courts, and who bring to the program a history of substance abuse. Women with children have a high priority for admission, Tarrasch said.

After what she characterized as “an intensive assessment” to discern if a woman meets criteria, desires treatment and is appropriate for the intensity of the program, WIR’s attorney and staff “jointly advocate before the court” to admit her.

Admission leads to intense accountability, including mandatory GPS (Global Positioning System) ankle monitoring devices, house arrest, and supervision through court services. Tarrasch said such supervision continues “for accountability, structure and public safety” all through the program. Initially, drug testing is provided at least three times a week, along with “a strict schedule of judicial reviews.”

Since beginning in June 2009, extensive services have been provided to 95 women, “with a combined child count of 189,” Tarrasch detailed. As many as 100 program will be in the program this year, as WIR aims to impact “the inter-generational incarceration cycle.”

Since its beginning, 14 women have been terminated from WIR, yielding an 85% success rate so far. Currently, 51 percent of participants are working, while “32 percent are enrolled in educational endeavors, 100 percent are in safe and affordable housing,” and all of those with children are re-establishing relationships or reunifying with their children.

Fourteen of the women who have gone through the program would have otherwise received a total of 61 years in collective prison sentences, Tarrasch reported. Two-thirds are employed, and “11 more are scheduled to graduate on March 23.” Graduates must be drug and alcohol free, crime free, be employed and “participate in community recovery support, be engaged in reunification plans with children, and have successfully completed goals and objectives of the program.” Further, they must meet all legal and judicial requirements.

Tarrasch disclosed an evaluation is under way “from our partners at the University of Tulsa.” An aftercare system to monitor continued success has been established, as well. Once upon at time, Tarrasch observed, “I was unfamiliar with the criminal justice system.” That has changed.

She said the success of WIR “is largely due to support” from those in the criminal justice system. She characterized as “overly simplistic” putting nonviolent offenders in prison, saying the WIR program is leading to “young women who are now taxpaying citizens (approximately $29,132 per year), engaging with their children as healthier parents and family members and productive citizens … without harm or risk to the safety of our community.”

She thanked Speaker of the House Kris Steele for what she termed “exemplary efforts” to find alternatives to incarceration for “nonviolent women with addiction problems.” WIR presented its Legislator of the Year award to Steele earlier this year.

Tarrasch noted the program she runs is supported by the Kaiser Family Foundation “and not [by] government dollars.” However, she and other advocate hope “that the state may one day consider a redistribution of funds supporting community-based alternatives.” She thanked George Kaiser for supporting the program, also praising the foundation’s Ken Levit and Amy Santee.

Tarrasch described experiences witnessing “the pain and suffering of women who are addicted, lost, broken, and full of anguish as a result of horrific abuse and trauma, which often led them to their addiction. Someone broke them, and they broke the law, but I watch them reclaim and re-architect their new life.”

In the Legislature, Speaker Steele is sponsoring House Bill 2131, which would change the “default sentencing structure” from consecutive to concurrent terms, facilitate eligibility for community sentencing and Global Position System Monitoring programs, andlimit the involvement of Oklahoma’s governor in parole decisions for non-violent offenders.

Steele has worked on criminal justice issues for many years, and began a push for major reforms last fall.