In early August, US Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines by announcing that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Mandatory minimums are policies that require everyone convicted of certain crimes to be sentenced at least a minimum number of years in prison, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the crime.
Mandatory minimums have been shown to be ineffective at preventing crime. Meanwhile, they distort the criminal justice system by creating situations where punishments do not fit the crime, and they threaten the right of access to a fair trial when prosecutors use the threat of harsh sentences to pressure defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge, even if they are innocent.
Leaders on both the right and left are in agreement that mandatory minimums are bad policy and have joined the push for reform. Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy have introduced the “Justice Safety Valve Act” to restore judges’ discretion over sentencing in federal cases. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which is backed by ideologically conservative and corporate interests, recently reversed its position on mandatory minimums to endorse a state version of the Justice Safety Valve Act. The Oklahoman editorial board called for Oklahoma to lawmakers to join this movement for reform.
Another recent endorsement for reform has come from the American Corrections Association (ACA), the largest group representing correctional officers in the country. ACA President Chris Epps, who is also the Mississippi Commissioner of Corrections, released a statement that, “ACA’s members know from long and first-hand experience that crowding within correctional systems increases violence, threatens overall security within a facility, and hampers rehabilitation efforts. Prisons are full of nonviolent offenders serving lengthy and mandatory minimum sentences. Our members work hard every day to keep staff, inmates, and the public safe, but the current system is unsustainable.”
This nationwide incarceration crisis is matched and exceeded in Oklahoma, and mandatory minimums have played a major role in our state’s very high incarceration rates. By reviewing Oklahoma’s criminal statutes, we found there are at least 122 mandatory minimum sentences on the books. You can download the full list here.
About half of Oklahoma prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent property and drug offenses, and mandatory minimums are a big reason why. Possession or distribution of any Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance other than marijuana brings with it a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years for a first offense, or 4 years for second and subsequent offenses. For illegal drugs deemed less dangerous, including marijuana, distribution of any amount has a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years. A second conviction for possession of any amount of these drugs brings with it a mandatory minimum of 2 years in prison if it happens within 10 years of the first conviction, or 1 year after 10 years.
If convicted of possession within 1,000 feet of a school or public park, or in the presence of a child, minimum sentences are doubled and offenders are required to serve at least 50 percent of the sentence for a first offense. If this situation occurs for a second offense, minimums are tripled and at least 90 percent of the sentence must be served in prison.
Cultivating more than 1,000 marijuana plants, or large amounts of other drugs, is classified as “aggravated manufacturing” with a mandatory minimum 20 year sentence. But mandatory minimums catch small-time growers for personal use too – the minimum sentence for cultivating any amount of marijuana less than 1,000 plants is 2 years for a first offense or 4 years for a second offense.
Serial shoplifting also can result in years in prison, even if the items stolen are worth very little. A third conviction for “larceny of merchandise from retailer or wholesaler” of items worth any amount less than $500 comes with a mandatory minimum 2 year prison sentence.
These minimums are not always binding. In some cases they can be avoided by utilizing drug courts, which have more leeway to send offenders to treatment instead of incarceration. However, drug courts have not been funded well enough to make them available to all non-violent drug offenders in the state, and offenders who do not meet stringent drug court requirements still risk long sentences.
Reforming mandatory minimums will also not completely address the problem of overly harsh sentencing, because Oklahoma routinely imprisons non-violent offenders for terms much longer than the minimum. A recent infamous example was Oklahoma mother of 4 Patricia Spottedcrow’s sentence of 12 years in prison for selling $31 worth of marijuana. The sentence was ultimately reduced after an avalanche of media attention, and Spottedcrow was able to rejoin her children after 2 years. But many others in Oklahoma were not so lucky to spend “only” 2 years in prison for a minor crime. The average sentence length for drug possession in Oklahoma is 5.2 years, and the average sentence for drug distribution is 7.3 years. Non-violent property crimes had an average sentence length of nearly 5 years.
Until we make changes across the board to replace long incarceration with drug treatment and community sentencing, Oklahoma’s criminal justice system will remain costly to taxpayers, ineffective at reducing crime, and destructive to many Oklahoma families. The bipartisan, national momentum for reform of mandatory minimums offers a good opportunity for progress in Oklahoma. State lawmakers should not pass it up.