OKLAHOMA CITY -- Overcrowding in Oklahoma's prisons has reached "critical capacity" while spending on the correctional system is "eating into all other priorities," a panel of experts told Oklahoma legislators this week. The panel, which has been studying effective strategies for improving the system, said Oklahoma should learn from the efforts of states like Texas.
In that state offenders have been diverted into mental health and drug treatment programs, provided more opportunities for rehabilitation and use probation and parole mechanisms to avoid the costs of building new prisons.
Some of the results of the panel's study were released Thursday by the George Kaiser Foundation.
"Corrections spending is a Pac-Man of state budgets everywhere," said Michael Thompson, executive director of the Council of State Governments' Justice Center. "It's eating into all other priorities."
Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration and the third-highest male incarceration rate in the nation, and faces overcrowded prisons throughout the state.
Participants in the Tulsa County Women in Recovery program also spoke to legislators. It's a prison diversion program for nonviolent female offenders.
Candice Weaver, a 28-year-old woman in the program, told legislators that she was in and out of incarceration until she entered the program. Although she called the program "tough," she said it has taught her and other women how to deal with their feelings, eat healthy, balance a daily schedule, give back to the community and stay clear of drugs and alcohol.
"This program has not only changed me, but it has also affected my family as a whole," she said. "This program is where my foundation began."
Women incarcerated in Oklahoma have about 7,100 children – more than half are under 18 and many end up in prison.