Doing what's right by Oklahoma's children

By Todd E. Pauley

As the Legislature considers an expansive array of policies related to criminal justice and public safety, one thing is clear: Our laws should serve, protect and prioritize the state's most vulnerable citizens, our children. But there is a group of Oklahoma's youngest residents whose suffering is too often ignored: the children of incarcerated parents.

One in 10 Oklahoma children has had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood, and because the state has the highest incarceration rate for women, many children are growing up without their mothers. The absence of either parent affects a child's chances for success, but the incarceration of the mother is especially damaging.

This grim reality drove us at the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth to undertake multiple comprehensive studies on the effects of maternal incarceration on children in Oklahoma. The OCCY surveyed 367 women in 2014, and what we discovered was heart-rending.

The women reported that their children struggled with a wide range of issues: poor grades, running away, unexpected pregnancy or fatherhood, drug abuse and mental health issues. In almost all cases, these problems worsened after the mother went to prison. And perhaps saddest of all, more than one in four of the women had a parent in prison during their own childhood.

The mothers surveyed represent only a fraction of the 3,000 women behind bars in Oklahoma. Oklahoma women are no less worthy of redemption than other American women.

As a state, we must uphold our Oklahoma values by pursuing policies that keep parents and children together whenever possible. If we don't act now, these challenges will only be exacerbated.

Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, with 61,000 citizens and counting in the system as of December 2016, and it's projected to increase. If it does, the state will need three new prisons, at a total cost of $1.9 billion, not to mention the human cost.

Fortunately, we have hope. Last year Gov. Mary Fallin, on whose staff I served during her tenure in the U.S. House, created a task force in response to the state's incarceration crisis. Oklahoma's existing laws, though well intentioned, were not making our state any safer.

Finding that the vast majority of Oklahoma's prisoners are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force laid out a set of policy proposals that would better integrate treatment and rehabilitation into the justice system. This will allow judges to tailor consequences to each person's transgression, ensuring that prison beds and severe punishments would still be meted out to violent offenders, but also providing alternatives to incarceration such as expanded access to drug courts and community sentencing.

These solutions are not a “free pass” to Oklahomans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. On the contrary, the proposals are about responding quickly and fairly to transgressions, supporting returning citizens, and ultimately breaking a cycle that can otherwise entrap entire families.

My pastor once told me, “You will never be sorry for doing the right thing." There is a better way, and we will take steps to do well by our children, Oklahoma's future.

Todd Pauley is Commissioner on the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.