Oklahoma’s mandatory minimum punishments too often don’t fit the crime

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

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.

mandatory-minimums-table

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry joined OK Policy in January 2011. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

4 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s mandatory minimum punishments too often don’t fit the crime

  1. i would like to know more about the law changes like the 85% and 33% does it go down cause im facing criminal charges once again and all of prior charges have been drugs and they are trying to give me 20 to life for being an addict and my brother is also in trouble and they are trying to give him 15 years and not even offer any kind of rehabillitation for him.
    I have been through drug court and there are things that i have missed or something any my main question is about the percentage does it go down.

  2. Being charged distributing cds within 2000 ft of school in presence of minor and distributing cds. I have completed drug court and prior drug charges. I was asked to go police station cause my name came up in a report. Was told i wasnt under arrest but getting charged for conspiracy knowingly knowing my boyfriend sold drugs and sold to their informant but then started talking bout 3 stolen guns on 2 other ppl and that my boyfriend bought one of the guns which he didnt. That im going to prison but to help them snitch out the ppl with guns i said that gonna help me with that charge your saying your charging me they said no your going prison but their informant that snitching aint going prison. But i said i do it but i would let them know if they were still in poss of guns well they werent and i told them that but they went to my motel room without search warrent came rudely to the owner and made her open my door. She said they didnt find anything in my room but was looking for guns but they dont want you they want my boyfriend. But bout 3-5 hours they put apv warrent on me and boyfriend for dist. Cds by school. We went jail i bonded out but boyfriend hasnt and said oids attorney after he requested discovery of motion which next time she talk to him she didnt bring the paper work for discovery of motion but said we were on audio and camera of me grabbing the money giving to boyfriend and him giving sack to informant. But supposely was doing operation of big drug dealers in clinton ok had our pictures on there and was on news but next article for public records in newspaper said we were laying in bed informant put money on bed and sack went from my hand to my boyfriend to informant?????

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