OK Bill Would Give ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’ to Nonviolent Parents with Primary Custody

This article informs us about a bill currently pending before the Oklahoma Legislature that would make motherhood a Get Out of Jail Free Card (Time, 2/6/11).

Of course the wording of the bill is not gender-specific, but the result certainly would be.  It would allow “primary caregivers” who are nonviolent drug offenders to enter a “diversion” program instead of prison for their offense.  That is, they would spend nights in halfway houses, wear ankle bracelets so the state can monitor their whereabouts and get treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.  Once they complete the program, they’d be released without a record.

Now, that looks like a sensible program to me.  The idea that people who possess small amounts of pot should do time at taxpayer’s expense has always struck me as just this side of crazy.

The proposed law is based on an existing program in Tulsa that is anything but gender-neutral.  It’s called Women in Recovery, and the bill tracks its approach to non-violent drug offenders.  So the “primary caregiver” language looks like a thinly-veiled effort to get around possible challenges to the law based on equal protection arguments.  The fact that 84% of primary caregivers nationwide are mothers means that, if the law is passed, whatever its wording, its impact will be anything but gender-neutral.

Interesting too is the fact that the law would apparently benefit not only drug users, but drug pushers too.  One of the women who took advantage of the Women in Recovery program was operating a meth lab out of her house and therefore looks like she was not merely using, but in the business.

Both the article and the author of the bill, House Speaker Kris Steele, promote the bill as a money saver for the State of Oklahoma.  The idea is that, since it costs the state $26,000 on average to incarcerate an inmate, diverting them from prison would save the state money.  That of course is desperately needed in these recessionary times when virtually every state is running huge budget deficits.

But that raises the obvious question (if it hasn’t been raised before) “why not do it for men too?”  The article says that Oklahoma incarcerates women at twice the rate of the rest of the country.  That would mean that 18-20% of the state’s inmates are women. 

So, if the goal is to save money by giving non-violent offenders with drug or alcohol problems a chance at rehabilitation and prison avoidance, why limit it to “primary caregivers,” i.e. inmates (almost exclusively women) with children? 

If the state wants to save money, why not save a lot instead of a little?

Beyond the patent sexism of the proposed law, the sexism of the article is worth mentioning.  The headline proclaims that “Too Many Women Behind Bars” is a “crisis” in Oklahoma.  But the piece never explains that can be true while having at least four times as many men in prison is not a crisis. 

The personal stories it tells of inmates who have benefited from the Women in Recovery program are, well, women.  Men, as is so often the case, are faceless and voiceless despite the fact that their trials and tribulations are essentially identical to those of the women interviewed.

And I suppose it goes without saying that the article makes no mention of the fact that the best-done, authoritative studies of incarceration in the U.S. show that men and women with similar backgrounds, similar offenses, etc. experience radically different treatment by the criminal justice system.  One such study shows that, in the federal system, the effect of being male (vs. female) in sentencing is the same as being African-American (vs. white).

The radical anti-father bias of family courts is well known and results in only 16% of divorced fathers having primary custody of their kids.  That figure has remaned essentially unchanged in the past decade.

The upshot is that 90% of inmates are male.  Oklahoma’s proposed law would offer a far more sensible approach to non-violent drug offenders than anything currently being done, but would do so overwhelmingly for one of the smallest prison populations – parents with primary care of children.  Those of course are mostly mothers.  That means the law that seeks to cut state spending for prisons and therefore reduce the budget deficit would do so in the most minimal way possible – by targeting one of the smallest populations.

For fathers, the law begins to look like part of a continuing system of keeping them away from their children.  Use pot, lose your liberty, lose your kids.  Why?  Because you’re not the primary caregiver.  Why aren’t you the primary caregiver?  Because that’s how we treat fathers irrespective of their value to their kids.  If the family court isn’t efficient enough at doing that, criminal law will do its bit.

And news media outlets like Time can be counted on to encourage the whole thing with articles that doggedly avoid noticing the herd of elephants in the room.

Thanks to John for the heads-up.

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