Mean Women and Misplaced Priorities: Incarcerated Women

Sarah Wynn

Premission Requested: Sarah Wynn, Mean Women and Misplaced Priorities: Incarcerated Women in Oklahoma , 27 Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society 281 (Fall 2012) (184 footnotes)

      An African-American woman was pulled over in Beckham County, Oklahoma, and the police conducted a free air dog sniff of her car. She had 52.7 pounds of marijuana in her car. The jury was confused about what percentage of the sentence they imposed would actually be served by the defendant, but the judge was prohibited from clarifying. The defendant was sentenced to fifty years without parole and will serve 100 percent of that time. Forty-five years is the equivalent to a life term in Oklahoma. This particular case should shed light on why Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the United States. Questions such as, “Should a non-violent offender ever be required to serve a life sentence?” are questions that Oklahoma needs to ask itself, especially with this unsavory first place in mind.

      Between 1986 and 1995, the incarceration rate of women has increased at the alarming pace of over 400 percent while the male incarceration rate has increased at half that pace. This case study of the state with the highest female incarceration rate in the country will shed some light on the relevant factors for this discrepancy. Oklahoma has a female incarceration rate of 130, which is almost twice the national average of 67 and significantly higher than Idaho, which has the second highest female incarceration rate of 104. Why? There are two potential answers: more women are being sentenced to jail time and/or women are being given longer sentences, such as the life sentence for marijuana trafficking as in the example case. In his study, Kelly Damphousse, a University of Oklahoma (OU) sociology professor, concludes that the main reason for the increase in prison population is longer sentences. This article explores the reasons why sentences have increased over time through an examination of national policies and Oklahoma's sentencing laws. More specifically, this article concludes that the incarceration rate of women in Oklahoma is so high because non-violent crimes, the ones women commit the most, are punished as harshly as violent crimes.

      This article starts in Section I by examining women as a minority in the criminal justice system. Section II considers general themes in the profile of the female offender. Section III then talks about differences in female offending patterns. Section IV addresses the national increase in female incarceration starting in the 1980s. Section V then takes this national picture and examines the particularities in Oklahoma that give it the highest incarceration rate of women in the country. In Section VI, this article concludes by proposing some solutions.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton
School of Law
Dayton, OH 45469-2772
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