By Michael McNutt
An honors high school graduate, Brooke Larson never thought that within a decade she would be a drug addict facing a 10-year prison sentence. An addict in prison, Larson never expected she would someday be sitting next to Oklahoma's governor and shaking her hand at the state Capitol.
Larson, 32, was among 18 women who recently completed the Women in Recovery program, an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent women in Tulsa County who have alcohol and drug addictions. It is the program's sixth graduating class.
Fallin told the graduates and more than 100 attending Wednesday's ceremony that Oklahoma ranks first in the nation with the rate of incarcerated nonviolent female offenders.
"With programs like Women in Recovery, we are starting to buck that trend, save lives and families in the process," Fallin said. "This being the largest graduating class in the program's history shows that these women are dedicated to a life that is substance-free and ready to contribute to society."
Fallin said her mother often consoled her when she faced personal struggles and challenges by telling her that she wasn't the first to face such problems.
"You're not the first, ladies," she said. "You're not the first Oklahomans that have had to struggle with some type of challenge in your life.
"God allows U-turns," she said. "You've made that U-turn in life and today is a celebration of your new life, of your recovery, of your commitment to have a different life, to give your children a better future in our state."
House Speaker Kris Steele has proposed sweeping changes to state corrections policy the past two years. The changes are intended to alleviate prison overcrowding, in part by sending nonviolent drug offenders to alternative sentencing programs such as Women in Recovery. Steele told the graduates they could learn from automobile designers.
"When they designed the car for us to drive, you know that they make the windshield great big and the rearview mirror is relatively small in comparison," said Steele, R-Shawnee. "They understand that what's in front of you is much more important than what's behind you. ... You've got the rest of your life ahead of you and tremendous opportunities in front of you."
Women who complete the Women in Recovery program are still convicted and sentenced, but they serve their sentences out of prison. Individual programs are developed for each woman, but it usually takes about a year of intensive treatment and services to complete it. To quality, candidates must be at least 18 years old, ineligible for other diversion services or courts and must have a history of substance abuse. The 18 graduates were addicted for a combined total of 228.6 years.
Women with children have a high priority for admission.
Upon completion, they are required to maintain jobs and be good mothers.
The program is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and operated by Family and Children's Services in Tulsa.
Mimi Tarrasch, director of the Women in Recovery program, said it wasn't that long ago that each of the 18 graduates was living a life of despair while immersed in their addiction.
"They envisioned little or no hope of recovery, nor were they able to see any hope for their future," she said. "To use their words, they felt like they were a lost cause -- a failure as a person, a parent, a daughter, a spouse, a failed human being."
Most have their GED or a high school diploma and three are starting college, she said.
"All are working and paying taxes except for one, who is on disability," Tarrasch said.
Larson said she went to college, got married and was a stay-at-home mom, not realizing her husband was a drug addict. They had two children and, eight years after they were married, he died of an overdose. She remarried and had two more children, and her second husband, who used drugs, started abusing her. He was arrested, and she started using and selling drugs.
She was arrested and was serving a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking and a five-year sentence for distribution when she asked that her case go up for judicial review. A Tulsa County judge referred her to the Women in Recovery program, she said.
"From start to finish, I did 16 months in the custody of the Department of Corrections before Women in Recovery accepted me and began to help me change my life," Larson said. "I've be