"Enabling Child Abuse" And Why Oklahoma Imprisons So Many Women

An Oklahoma law that has put battered women in prison — sometimes for longer than their abusers — is part of why the state puts more women per capita behind bars than any other. So says a Harvard fellow hired by Oklahoma's governor to examine its criminal justice system. The latest in a BuzzFeed News investigation.

Oklahoma imprisons women at a higher rate than any other state — and one reason, according to the author of a recent criminal justice report commissioned by the state's governor, is a law that turns some battered women into criminals.

The law is known as "enabling child abuse." It doesn't punish women for actually committing child abuse but rather for not intervening to stop their violent partners from harming their children. Often, the women are themselves victims of the men, who batter them too.

The sentences can be harsh. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that 28 mothers in 11 states were sentenced to 10 years or more behind bars, despite evidence that they were battered, and despite not being accused of committing the abuse.

"Laws like that are keeping people in prison when they may actually be simply in need of help," said Adam Luck, a Harvard graduate fellow hired by Gov. Mary Fallin to examine how, among other things, the state might reduce its prison population.

In Oklahoma, the punishment for enabling child abuse is the same as child abuse itself: up to life in prison. BuzzFeed News found two cases in which the battered mother received more prison time than the man who abused her and her child. In one case, the mother was sentenced to 30 years in prison for allowing her boyfriend to commit abuse; the boyfriend was sentenced to only 2 years behind bars.

Luck's report, published in July, does not discuss the enabling child abuse law, instead focusing more generally on ways to pare down the state's prison population. Oklahoma puts more people in prison per capita than all but two states, and more women in prison than anywhere else in the country.

In 2012 state lawmakers took aim at the problem, passing a bill meant to create prison alternatives and screen offenders for substance abuse and mental health issues. Gov. Fallin's administration has yet to implement many of the reforms the law was supposed to bring about, but has said she still plans to follow through. Luck spent 10 weeks studying the law and other potential policy changes before delivering his report in July of this year. A key pro-reform advocate told The Oklahoman that Luck's work was a hopeful sign of Fallin's intentions.

Luck recommends in his report that lawmakers explore ways to "delineate dangerous versus non-dangerous crimes as well as violent versus nonviolent crimes." He also recommends tweaking sentencing law to allow non-violent offenders earlier parole.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Luck said the enabling child abuse law is "definitely something that can fit into the reform that takes place."

He compared the plight of battered women under the law to that of people with drug addiction under other laws, saying that in many cases it's worth looking at alternatives to prison. Enabling child abuse and other laws that incarcerate people with mental health or substance issues form "the root" of Oklahoma's high female incarceration rate, Luck said.

Luck is a native Oklahoman and graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Gov. Fallin's administration commissioned Luck's report, which is called "Criminal Justice Reform in Oklahoma: Analysis of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and Recommendations For Steps Forward," as part of a fellowship program where Harvard scholars offer policy advice to various state governments.

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said that Luck's report was a "starting point" for policymakers as they consider reform. "The governor and her staff are considering all of Luck's recommendations as we move forward," Weintz said.

Weintz did not state a position on the enabling child abuse law but said Fallin is committed to changes "which we believe are 'smart on crime.'"

Fallin's goal, Weintz said, was to "separate truly violent criminals who represent a threat to their communities from non-violent criminals," and to make sure that "the punishment truly fits the crime."

Email the author of this story at alex.campbell@buzzfeed.com

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