It was reported last week that Patricia Spottedcrow, who had been sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence over a decade ago for selling $31 worth of marijuana, was back in jail on a bench warrant because she owed more than $1,100 in unpaid court costs. Spottedcrow, who was 25 at the time of sentencing, had four children, all under 10. She had no high school education and no previous arrests. Her mother was also charged in the case and received a 30-year suspended sentence so she could care for the children as guardian.
News reports indicated the original 12-year sentence by the judge was entered without recommendation from the district attorney. Lawyers call this a “blind plea.” After her story garnered national attention in 2011 as part of a study of Oklahoma women in prison, Spottedcrow’s sentence was reduced by a different judge to 8 years with 4 years suspended. She was paroled in November 2012.
On the face of it, this case reveals flaws in our criminal justice system in Oklahoma that help make us the number one incarcerator in the world. For starters, the penalty for delivery of even the small amount of marijuana in 2010 was two years to life. The woman literally had no options but to throw herself on the mercy of the district attorney or the court. Reports don’t indicate what the district attorney had offered. Had the woman gone to a jury trial, juries in Oklahoma are not allowed to hear evidence of mitigating circumstances in the case or to recommend probationary sentences. At a jury trial in Oklahoma, unlike in most other states, it’s prison or nothing.
The legislature in 2018 changed the maximum penalty for delivery of marijuana to five years, but it’s likely many are in prison – out of sight and out of mind – under the old sentencing law. There are many other criminal statutes in Oklahoma with a wide range of punishment that leaves broad discretion to individual prosecutors or judges, usually prosecutors. And parenthetically, what purpose could be served by sentencing the mother/grandmother to a 30-year suspended sentence?
Another system flaw is that nearly a decade after the conviction the state is arresting this woman on a warrant for failure to pay court costs. A 2017 article in the Tulsa World reported Spottedcrow was still dealing with several mental health diagnoses, a lack of job opportunities, few housing choices, stress of a growing family and notoriety of her case while living in a small town.
Were it not for the publicity in her case, she would likely be sitting in jail like thousands of others for failure to pay court costs. At some point it would seem to be of no benefit to the state or to offenders to keep them in debt under threat of arrest and jail.