Keeping mothers out of jail requires new solutions

Normally, government funds programs with the hope of improving outcomes. However well intentioned, the results are mixed — at best.

But there’s a new paradigm emerging that empowers governments to build on successes in the private sector and fund outcomes, not the program itself. 

In Oklahoma, we incarcerate more women per capita than anywhere in the nation, at one of the highest rates in the world.

Most women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.

This incarceration separates mothers from their children, straining the most significant familial bond and contributing to intergenerational issues like addiction and poverty.

Recognizing the widespread damage caused by women’s incarceration, we are implementing a first-of-its-kind solution that will keep women out of prison, reduce the recidivism rate and improve long-term outcomes for women and their families — all at a fraction the cost of incarceration.

More than eight years ago, the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) started Women in Recovery, an evidence-based alternative to incarceration, providing intensive treatment for women facing long-term prison sentences for drug-related crimes in Tulsa County. GKFF assumed all up-front financial risks while pioneering new strategies.

Women in Recovery works with a broad coalition of stakeholders, including prosecutors, defense counsel, community partners and the courts to enroll women in the program.

Lasting between 12 and 24 months, the program takes a holistic approach to address challenges specific to women involved in the criminal justice system.

The program provides wraparound services from trauma and substance abuse treatment to job training to wellness and family reunification to improve women’s outcomes and strengthen families while building stronger communities.

It’s working. 

Take Amanda, a 29-year-old mother. Amanda grew up surrounded by drug use. She first started drinking at eleven, dropped out of school at sixteen and was arrested numerous times for minor offenses.

At 25, she was unemployed, homeless, addicted to drugs and pregnant when she was arrested again. Instead of going to prison and giving birth there, she enrolled in Women in Recovery, where she got the help she needed.

Through the program, she received treatment for her addiction, learned how to be a better mother, received her GED and now has a stable job to support herself and her daughter. 

Amanda’s story is not the exception. 

Women in Recovery has shown impressive results across the board: the recidivism rate for women in the program is less than five percent, compared to as much as fourteen percent for the general female prison population. 

The program has demonstrated how holistic care can improve outcomes for women, their families and communities, while saving taxpayers money.

Through an innovative public-private partnership, the state of Oklahoma is now stepping up to support Women in Recovery.

Under the partnership called Pay for Success, Oklahoma pays into Women in Recovery if participants meet key outcomes. If participants return to the state’s criminal justice system, the state pays nothing, transferring all financial risk to private partners, like GKFF.

Instead of government funding programs and hoping for success, government now has the power to fund outcomes that we know work.

Take a look at our program: instead of the state paying more than $30,000 on average to incarcerate each woman, Oklahoma will now contribute no more than $22,584 to Women in Recovery for every participant — but only when a participant successfully finishes the program and remains out of prison for three years after program graduation.

Too often, governments make risky investments in programs they hope will be successful, but under this arrangement, Oklahoma is making a historic commitment to support a program that has a proven track record of helping women like Amanda, without any of the upfront financial risks.

Not only does the new agreement help address Oklahoma’s incarceration problem, it also saves the state some much-needed capital. The Pay for Success agreement will help implement reforms that work for everyone by bolstering resources to improve outcomes for women and their families and alleviating the criminal justice crisis that has plagued the state of Oklahoma for generations.

The good news is this isn’t just about solving the problem of female incarceration — it’s about fundamentally changing the way government solves social challenges. By harnessing the power of the philanthropic community, governments now we have a new tool to help solve problems.

It takes a lot of courage to take an unparalleled step of this magnitude, but we are encouraged by what Oklahoma stands to gain from this historic agreement.

More governments should look for creative ways to harness the power of the private sector to drive positive social change — while saving taxpayers money. 

We are hopeful this agreement will improve outcomes for all Oklahomans and set a historic example for other states to follow.

Mary Fallin is the governor of Oklahoma. Ken Levit is the executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation.


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