OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Changes in state sentencing laws, including the expansion of drug courts, is credited with helping reduce the number of women in Oklahoma prisons.
Oklahoma still leads the nation in the rate of incarceration of women, according to ``The Punitiveness Report,'' a recent study by the Women's Prison Association, but the report said the number of women in Oklahoma prisons fell from a high of 2,394 in 2000 to 2,300 in 2004.
Nationally, the number of female prisoners has increased 17 percent during that time period.
Since 2004, Oklahoma's female inmate population dropped even more, according to the state Corrections Department.
As of May 30, the department's most recent inmate count, there were 2,194 female inmates.
``We apparently made some progress on this issue,'' said K.C. Moon, director of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center.
Moon said a drug-court expansion approved in 1999 has brought state spending on the program from about $500,000 to more than $11 million.
The move has given judges more options for rehabilitating drug offenders other than handing down prison sentences, he said.
Last year, half of all women sent to Oklahoma prisons were convicted of drug-related crimes, compared with about 35 percent of men, said DOC spokesman Jerry Massie.
The report said for every 100,000 women in Oklahoma, 129 were sent to prison for a year or longer during 2004, tops in the nation. Mississippi was second with 107 of every 100,000 women in prison.
Kevin Pranis, one of the study's authors, said states such as Oklahoma with tougher sentencing laws for relatively minor drug and property crimes tend to send far more women to prison.
``Since prison systems started broadening and grabbing more people, women are being disproportionately scooped up,'' he said.
Pranis said women also are more likely to go to prison for petty property crimes such as shoplifting and writing bogus checks.
A change in state law in 2001 could mean fewer women are being incarcerated for those crimes, according to Moon.
Theft crimes involving more than $50 used to be a felony punishable by more than a year in prison.
The Legislature moved the threshold for those crimes to $500 dollars during the 2001 legislative session and now, only property crimes of more than $1,000 are punishable by prison sentences, Moon said.
Another explanation for the drop in female inmates could be that more are being released early.
As of May 30, 152 women were completing their sentences in halfway houses, according to the Corrections Department.
Massie said others have been released from halfway houses on work-release programs and are being monitored by global positioning software.