By Kristi Eaton
Oklahoma has historically been one of the top incarcerating states for women in the nation, and a nonprofit called Still She Rises is trying to change that.
Still She Rises is the first public defenders’ office solely focused on representing mothers in the criminal justice system. It was started by Robin Steinberg, who also started the Bronx Defenders in New York.
“Still She Rises is a Tulsa version of the Bronx Defenders, meaning you can’t just take a model and plot it here because there are so many unique elements and so many unique challenges that are respective to Tulsa,” said Aisha McWeay, executive director of Still She Rises.
She notes that in cases of child removal from homes, it happens faster in Tulsa than in New York. So, too, do evictions. Oklahoma has some of the most punitive laws in the country as well, a byproduct of the culture, she believes.
“There’s a cultural component of punishment here. There just is,” she said. “I don’t have the scientific answer for that. I can’t put my finger on exactly what that is. I have my suspicions that some of it is religious-based, some of it is a need to ‘otherize’ people in order to feel good, but I don’t have the formula for why this is so disproportional here completely.”
One thing that is very striking about Oklahoma is it is a jury-sentencing state, yet maximum sentences are routinely handed down, she said.
“While we have some really harsh laws on the book – we also have juries enforcing those sentences and impacting and sentencing folks,” she added. “It’s not the folks in the robes handing down these punishments that are oftentimes maximums and not minimums. Those are the folks we live next door to and we see at the grocery store. I think that’s unique.”
Still She Rises has nearly 30 staff members, about half of whom are lawyers, she said. Others may fill a variety of roles, one of which is the client advocate, who advocates on behalf of the clients for their rights.
“So much happens outside of court – what we are doing,” McWeay said. “Our client advocates play a unique role in kind of being masters of sort of understanding how all of these things intersect and what the barriers are for our clients and how to navigate them.”
For example, if a judge tells a client that they must do something to follow their order, a client advocate may step in and say, ‘That’s actually not possible during the time frame set because these are the barriers that the clients will experience.’
Like with many other things, clients are being directly affected by the coronavirus, McWeay said. In criminal cases, Still She Rises is only appearing to argue bail/bond on behalf of clients – no substantive hearings are currently happening beyond that, she said.
In juvenile court, emergency hearings initially started via teleconference and are shifting to video. “We are addressing time-sensitive issues in cases through e-filing and virtual hearing,” she added.
Housing court, she said, has effectively shutdown. While eviction proceedings are on hold, there are still a number of evictions in the court process for Tulsa County. Still She Rises is working to share information with tenants about their rights through various forums and media, including Twitter and Facebook.
“The coronavirus has delayed court proceedings for weeks/months, limited our ability to see clients in person and caused us to focus energy almost exclusively on preserving clients’ rights during a pandemic and keeping clients informed,” she said in an email.