OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Two former inmates testified before a Senate committee on Tuesday about how prison diversion programs helped them battle their addictions and turn their lives around during a legislative hearing on the impact of drug use on the state's prison population.
Sen. Rob Standridge said he requested the study to highlight the role that drug addiction plays in Oklahoma's incarceration rate and said programs that could potentially divert drug-addicted criminal offenders from the state prison system hold promise.
"We're not forgiving them for the crime just because of their drug addiction, but maybe there's a way to both punish them for the crime and treat the drug addiction so they don't come back," said Standridge, R-Norman. "I think most citizens are in favor of (diversionary programs) for crimes that don't involve stealing something from somebody or hurting somebody."
With nearly 27,000 inmates, Oklahoma's incarceration rate is one of the highest in the nation. Its incarceration rate for women has been the highest in the country for more than a decade. Drug possession and distribution are among the top offenses for Oklahoma inmates, accounting for more than one-quarter of all prisoners in the state.
Lisa Lewis told members of the Senate Public Safety Committee that her drug addiction led to her arrest and imprisonment in the Cleveland County Jail, where she participated in the Second Chance Act Program for women. Now sober, Lewis said the program helped her find a place to live and get a job so that she could pay court costs and restitution for her crimes. She says she's also repaired her relationship with her family.
"As far as jail goes, it was a blessing," Lewis said.
The panel also heard from 41-year-old Greg Nicholson, who said he served 12 years in federal and state prisoners before ending up at Rob's Ranch, a recovery halfway house in Purcell that he credits with helping him turn his life around and stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Prison officials testified that nearly 5,000 of the 8,400 inmates received into the Department of Corrections over the last fiscal year were identified with a moderate or high need for substance abuse treatment. Oklahoma's prison system currently has 186 treatment slots for women and 638 for men, said Clint Castleberry, a program administrator for the Department of Corrections.
Lawmakers also heard from Steven Buck, deputy commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, who said more than 245,000 Oklahomans abuse or are dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs. He says alcohol and marijuana are the top drugs abused by people who seek treatment in Oklahoma, but that prescription drug abuse is increasing dramatically.
Buck said the number of fatal drug overdoses in Oklahoma more than doubled over the last 10 years, and the state recently had the 9th highest rate of deaths involving prescription painkillers in the nation.
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy