Standing amid more than 300 people at a historic theater in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, Paries Cannady recounted the struggle she overcame in high school after her mother went to prison.
“I was just one of the lucky ones to make it out and to be different than the statistics and the stigma that everyone puts on a child that has an incarcerated parent,” she said. “This is a very traumatizing experience, and I just feel like there needs to be awareness to this issue.”
Now a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, Cannady represents a positive example of a problem that affects thousands of families in Oklahoma: the state’s skyrocketing female incarceration rate.
Cannady’s testimony was one of many stories shared during Defining Justice, a forum that gathered experts, advocates and officials to explore why Oklahoma locks up so many women and what can be done about it. For 25 years, the state has ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for the rate at which it imprisons women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Panelists included a district attorney, several women who have served time in Oklahoma, advocates for reform, academics and Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials. The journalists who produced the investigation – Reveal Senior Editor Ziva Branstetter and Allison Herrera of PRI – moderated several panels at the forum.
Over the course of the afternoon, attendees took part in conversations to address how and why Oklahoma locks up women at more than twice the national rate, from the roots of the problem to concrete opportunities for reform.
The event began with a conversation between Herrera and Patricia Spottedcrow, a woman sentenced to 12 years for selling $31 worth of marijuana. She was released early on parole in 2012 following a public outcry after the Tulsa World wrote about her case. Spottedcrow personified one of Reveal’s data points: Oklahoma incarcerates Native American women at three times the rate of their share of the state’s population.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin joined The Atlantic’s Alison Stewart to discuss how she’s negotiating criminal justice reform as a Republican governor in a deeply red state. Fallin pointed to a list of conservative states – including Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia – that have recently enacted their own reforms. In recent years, 31 states have cut spending on corrections while reporting a decrease in crime rates.
“It’s not a Democrat or Republican issue – it’s an American issue,” Fallin said. “It’s a matter of talking about how you’re being smart on crime, but also tough on crime for those who might harm you.”
One panel featured Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and Kris Steele, a former Oklahoma House speaker who now runs a nonprofit organization that helps former inmates develop life skills. Kunzweiler and Steele had a frank and passionate debate about the role prosecutors, advocates and lawmakers need to play for reform to succeed.
The two debated over a recent change in state law passed by voters that makes simple possession of any drug a misdemeanor. Because the state will be sending fewer people to prison on drug possession cases, savings created by the change are supposed to go into treatment and rehabilitation programs.
Kunzweiler said during the forum that steps must be taken to ensure those funds are not diverted by the state, which has run massive budget deficits in the past several years. He also pointed out that prosecutors supported reforms passed years ago that were never funded.
Other solutions discussed at the event include lowering fines and fees that offenders owe when they are released, developing “ban the box” policies that allow felons to apply for jobs and further reducing sentences for some drug and property crimes. Those ideas were among 27 recommendations for reform issued by a state task force, some of which are expected to be proposed when the state Legislature meets next year.
The Wednesday forum was the first in a series of three events by The Atlantic examining aspects of the American criminal justice system and how they affect women and children in cities across the country.
You can watch videos of the full event here. Reveal will air an episode featuring our investigation into Oklahoma’s skyrocketing female incarceration starting Sept. 30. Subscribe to our podcast to hear the episode next week.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of one of the speakers. Her name is Paries Cannady.