Steele honored for leadership in seeking alternatives to incarceration

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 08-Feb-2011

Speaker of the House Kris Steele today (Tuesday, February 8) received recognition as Legislator of the Year from Family & Children’s Services. In a ceremony held in the House chambers at the start of the legislative day, frequent praise was offered for Women in Recovery, a Tulsa organization that has developed effective programs to assist women who might otherwise be serving prison sentences.

Steele has pressed for development of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, and has promised to make the issue a priority this legislative session.

In Monday’s State of the State address, Governor Mary Fallin put consideration of the issue in a portion of her address that touched on a handful of policy initiatives intended to support healthier lifestyles in the Sooner State. She said:

“By asking our citizens to take responsibility for their own health, we can build a healthier, more prosperous state, business by business, school by school and block by block.

“I’m asking our citizens to take responsibility for their lifestyles and their wellbeing. It’s no secret that many Oklahomans struggle with addiction issues that can lead to incarceration. As a result, Oklahoma is one of the highest rated states in the nation female incarceration.”

Fallin said, “the costs to our state and our communities don’t end with the original offender. … As Oklahomans, we must always place a priority on protecting our citizens and keeping our streets safe. But we can be tough on crime and smart on crime.

“That’s why I’m continuing to offer my full support to programs like ‘Women in Recovery’ and other initiatives that address substance abuse, prevent incarceration, and allow more families to stay together. By fighting the hold that substance abuse has on our communities, we can make Oklahoma healthier and safer while working towards reducing our incarceration rates.”

The state House got an early start to work on its second day, convening early in part so that WIR leaders could present the Legislator of the Year award to the speaker.

Gail Lapidus, executive director for FCS, described Steele as “a legislator who is truly making a difference in our state, calling for correctional reform to prevent unnecessary incarceration for nonviolent offenders with substance abuse related offenses.

“Family & Children’s Services in Tulsa provides life-changing programs for one in six Tulsans.  Within a network of community locations and 11 facilities, including our newest Sarah and John Graves Center, a staff of 500 provides a broad range of critical prevention and treatment services.

“As the largest outpatient provider of community mental health services in the state, we serve Oklahomans with some of the toughest troubles, that if left untreated, can lead to family breakdowns, child abuse, school dropout, loss of jobs, depression, suicide, homicide, and substance abuse, all of which result in human tragedy and higher costs to government.

“However, with appropriate and timely community based intervention and treatment, lives are saved, the public is protected and the cost to the state is greatly reduced by averting expensive hospitalization, jail or prison. Every day, we witness the transformation of broken lives and watch them become successful on the path to recovery, working, paying taxes and raising their children.

Mimi Tarrasch, director of Women in Recovery (a program run by FCS), followed Lapidus on the dias. She said it was a “personal honor” to recognize Steele for what she characterized as “exemplary efforts to explore alternatives to Oklahoma’s practice of imprisoning nonviolent women with addiction problems, which has made Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate the highest in the country — double the national average. I know you to be a person of integrity and have heard you speak to the Women in Recovery participants with genuine wisdom and dignity.”

Tarrasch echoed the views of other women involved with the group in her prepared remarks, saying the women were thrilled that Fallin called attention to the WIR program. She continued, “It was only 18 months ago that the Women in Recovery program was born. It wasn’t long after, you visited the Women in Recovery, spent time with women there then met with women currently incarcerated at Eddie Warrior and Mabel Basset [two Oklahoma prisons for women].  From there, you drafted legislation to expand alternative programs and now are leading our state’s effort to improve the criminal justice system.”

Tarrasch said Steele was winning the honor for his “unwavering support of the Women in Recovery program and for being a champion of criminal justice reform to improve the lives of all Oklahomans.”

More than two dozen women who are in the WIR program were in the gallery for the recognition, applauding for Steele as he prepared to express gratitude before the House. He praised WIR and pointed to the women and said, “You are the ones who are really making a difference.”

As Tuesday’s recognition concluded, many of the women in the program were weeping as they left the House gallery. But organizers said those were not tears of sadness, but of joy at the affirmation they had received from the Speaker and members of the House, who gave them a lengthy ovation at the end of Steele’s brief speech.

In a wide-ranging interview last fall, Steele told CapitolBeatOK:

“It is written on my heart to be concerned about the way we treat those who are in our prisons, who have committed crimes, and how they should be treated as a result. For years, I’ve heard people talk about Oklahoma’s high incarceration rates for women. In the House of Representatives, we had an Interim Study two years ago. I learned that not only are we at twice the national average for incarceration of women but that 68% of the women we incarcerate are non-violent and/or low risk offenders.

“To be clear on this, there ought to be consequences for actions. I just want to be sure we are focused like a laser on what works and what doesn’t work in terms of consequences for offenses.

“When as a state, as a government, we put an individual in prison for 12-14 months who is not necessarily a danger or a threat to public safety, is that the best policy? I’ve been in the Legislature for 10 years, and I’m at the start of my last two years before term limits. Every year, we deal with the Corrections issues. This year, we will have to tackle a requested supplemental for Corrections immediately. Mind you, we’ll have to do that merely to maintain the Status Quo. So I’m wondering if the status quo is best.

“I’m concerned about the path we’re on both in financial terms and in terms of human resources. If we do put a non-violent offender in for serious time, are we engaging in the most effective methods so that they can develop the skills and habits of life to be equipped to lead a productive life after their time in prison?

“I am convicted, as well, that we do not have enough initiatives or programs available within the prison walls when we have people in incarceration. While someone is ‘inside’ we have a time to influence him or her, and they have a time to improve themselves and be ready for life in the mainstream. Otherwise, they may come out of incarceration more at risk to recidivate than when they went in.”