Stephanie Horton, Chelsea Butay and Jill Webb have a common goal — keep first time, nonviolent felony offenders out of prison.
Each are a part of the Women’s Defense Team.
Horton, the defense team coordinator; Butay, a social worker, and Webb, a public defender, civil attorney and holistic defense coordinator, bring a variety of skills that fill the gap and offers services to female offenders and help those on probation struggling to meet probation requirements.
Oklahoma, with its high female incarceration rate, seemed to be the end route, with little hope for many women.
The Women’s Defense Team is open to anyone with a criminal case in Tulsa County, Butay said. Clients come from Oklahoma City, Inola, Osage County and other areas, but they are facing charges here.
“We looked at the system and found that women were coming to the courthouse daily with felony charges who didn’t have a previous record,” Horton said.
They would plead out at their preliminary hearing and were not offered any help, diversion programs or programs that would prevent their return to the court. Once they are in the legal system, they have a hard time getting out.
The Women’s Defense Team meets with women who are referred by various sources, attorneys, the Public Defender’s Office, private attorneys, judges, the district attorney’s office, probation and parole, court services and self-referrals from word of mouth.
“We look at their problems, where there are gaps and try to fill them,” Butay said.
Treatment plans are developed that could include mental health and psychiatric services. Substance abuse treatments are accessed and a case manager on the team links them with needed resources like housing programs, employment, educational services that run the gamut to meet the individual’s needs.
Many women have civil needs, whether a juvenile case, divorce, guardianship issue or eviction, and they get referred to Webb.
Tulsa’s judges generally are receptive to the Women’s Defense Team concept.
A 20-year-old woman was charged with larceny of merchandise from a retailer and was on probation for the same offense, Webb said. She had substance abuse problems and lived in poverty. The offer from the state was two felony convictions on her record.
The team worked with the young woman and had one charge reduced to a misdemeanor. Another felony charge remained. A treatment plan was worked out and she remained on a deferred sentence status.
The opportunity changed the young woman’s life, Webb continued. Now she is doing community service and because of the assistance she has received, she is moving forward.
“I can think of so many women that have been kept out of jail because of the Women’s Defense Team,” Horton said. “We had a judge who wanted to let a woman out of jail if she could get into intensive outpatient treatment. The team was able to get the required program together and outpatient treatment was started.”
That instance and others are frequent stories.
Attorneys know the team is working with them and their clients. Judges know their expectations will be met. The Women’s Defense Team and others have even driven the women to their appointments.
“We learned as we started the program that when you have a felony charge, your life is changed,” Horton said. “There are all kinds of collateral damages, things in one’s personal life that includes a job, housing and custody of children. The women deal with all of these pieces.”
Another piece is helping the women understand the resources available to them and what the courts are requiring, Butay said.
They must understand fines, fees and assessments they will have to meet. The Women’s Defense Team links them to the services as quickly as possible so they will have a way out and be able to move forward with their lives.
The program started in September 2014, and approximately 250 women have received some level of services. Some will participate in a few meetings, get their life restructured and move on. Others will require longer terms of assistance and that depends upon the woman.
“We have clients that we have worked with for more than a year,” Butay said. “Some judges schedule more court appearances because the woman has higher needs.”
The program is client-driven, Webb said. Once they feel like they met their goals, they can leave. It’s up to them.
They also can come back, Butay noted. If something came up with the kids, payments or other difficulties, the door is open for a return. Doors aren’t closed as long as the woman is not involved in another specialty court program.
“We are there to help those who don’t qualify for a diversion program so they have services in place,” Webb said. “All the attorneys at the Public Defender’s office are part of the holistic concept, and that has changed the way lawyers think about the office.”
Looking ahead one year, the three have similar goals.
Horton said her goal is to serve more women. Butay’s goal is to expand programs for those they are serving. Webb, who is in court daily, wants to reach out to more women not being served.
Attorneys appreciate the team’s approach, Butay said.
“We talk long term and eventually I would love to get to a place where problems are addressed outside the criminal justice system,” Horton said. “A person shouldn’t have to be arrested to get the needed services.”
Said Webb: “We need more boots on the ground,” noting that more people can be reached and their needs can be addressed.
The boots include community partnerships providing services to people involved in the criminal justice system, particularly women and their children who are involved in the foster care program, Butay said.
“We would like to strengthen understanding and partner with those people for our clients. I think assessing community resources is huge,” she said.
Agencies wishing to be involved or individuals wanting to volunteer to help the Women’s Defense Team should contact Horton at 918-591-9766.