Set Them Free

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The war on drugs has failed.

How many times do we have to say it and recognize it before there’s real reform? How many people do we have to incarcerate and humiliate before sensible policies prevail? How many billions, even trillions, of dollars in taxpayer money must we spend before basic rationality replaces zealotry?

Yes, so it’s great news that Oklahoma’s Patricia Spottedcrow, a 27-year-old mother convicted of selling $31 worth of marijuana in 2010, will get an early release from a draconian 12-year prison sentence, but as her attorney told the Tulsa World, “. . . she's certainly not the only case of this in Oklahoma. There are other Patricia Spottedcrows.”

Spottedcrow’s case highlights the disparity in drug-case sentencing. In some places in this country, for example, people have access to medical marijuana, or pot is pretty much decriminalized. Here in Oklahoma, an obsessive law-and-order political culture has filled our prisons with non-violent drug offenders, making the state rank first in the nation in the number of females it incarcerates. Surely, that ranking holds meaning, and, surely, Spottedcrow’s case is the perfect example of a state judicial and penal system that has lost its moral compass and any semblance of rationality.

I wrote about Spottedcrow’s case in 2011, pointing out that her conviction was a first offense. The mother of four entered a blind plea to selling $31 of marijuana to an informant in the Kingfisher area, and then received the draconian sentence from the late Kingfisher County District Judge Susie Pritchett. Spottedcrow’s children were in the house when she sold the marijuana, a fact that has been given as the reason for such a harsh sentence, a dubious rationale considering some violent crimes carry mandatory sentences far less than 12 years.

After the sentencing, Spottedcrow’s case received widespread media attention because of the obvious disparity between the crime and the sentence. Eventually, Gov. Mary Fallin, a staunch Republican conservative, agreed to an early release.

All of this senseless heartbreak and legal hassle remain the residue of the war on drugs declared by former President Richard Nixon some 40 years ago. This war has been decisively lost at a mind-boggling cost in terms of people’s lives and taxpayer money. As I wrote last year:

The numbers are staggering: Media reports show the United States spent $15.5 billion in 2010 on drug control efforts. More than $23 billion in federal and state money has been spent so far this year, according to DrugSense. Over the years, according to one report, the U.S. has spent at least $121 billion to arrest 37 million nonviolent people on drug charges. Meanwhile, illegal drugs remain readily available and people continue to use.

Patricia Spottedcrow, who will serve 120 days at a community-level facility before her release, is just one of those 37 million, a number that is ever growing with no end in sight. To repeat the words of her attorney, “There are other Patricia Spottedcrows,” and, yes, we need to set them free.

Saving Families, Taxpayer Dollars

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Oklahoma leads the nation in the per capita number of women serving prison sentences, a dubious national distinction. Many of the women in prison are serving time for nonviolent offenses. Some of these women are mothers, and their incarcerations often lead to family dysfunction, which creates even more problems.

Recognizing the problem, the Oklahoma House passed a bill last week that could eventually help lower the number of mothers serving prison sentences for nonviolent crimes. Let’s hope the bill gets signed into law. It’s a much-needed first step.

HB 2998, sponsored by state Rep. Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, would establish a pilot program that would help ease the reentry of incarcerated women with children. The program would identify women with children and develop a comprehensive plan for them, which might include diversionary sentencing rather than jail time.

Oklahoma incarcerates women at twice the national average. Almost 70 percent of all women incarcerated here are serving sentences for nonviolent offenses. I’ve written about this issue for several years. Read here, here and here. Here’s a section of a 2008 post that describes the philosophy driving the high incarceration rate:

Right now, the prevailing law enforcement and state corrections philosophy, supported by neoconservative ideology, is to incarcerate as many people as possible. The basic idea is that severe punishments, including long prison sentences, will deter crime. Yet the incarceration rates keep growing. Oklahoma, for example, has the highest percentage of incarcerated women in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice. Ultimately, this distinction should be the state’s shame, not a point of honor in a numbers game often played by political leaders and by some people who work in our judicial systems and law enforcement agencies.

In a press release about the issue, Steele said:

This bill will give women convicted of nonviolent crimes access to community-based rehabilitative services that have proven effective. As policy-makers, we can be both tough and smart on crime. The average prison stay for nonviolent women is less than a year, but the impact on their children is lifelong and devastating. In-home rehabilitative services will keep these families together and allow Oklahoma women to receive the help they desperately need.

Again, this is a first step in a problem that needs even more serious solutions and initiatives. Keeping nonviolent women out of prison and ensuring they get treatment and counseling saves families and taxpayer dollars.

Local Summit Focuses On High Female Incarceration Rate

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An upcoming summit will tackle the issue of Oklahoma’s nation-leading female incarceration rate.

The summit is part of Oklahoma Christian University’s Complex Dialogues series, and will be held at the campus on Tuesday, Jan. 26. The George Kaiser Family Foundation and Don and Donna Millican are helping to sponsor the event.

This is an important issue for Oklahoma, and one that I’ve been writing about for a long time. Last September, I published a commentary in the Oklahoma Gazette that began by asking a couple of basic questions.

Why in the world does Oklahoma lead the nation in the number of women incarcerated on a per capita basis? Do state leaders really want that distinction?

The numbers, as I pointed out in the article, reveal flaws in our state’s overall justice system.

The numbers tell a truly sad story: There are approximately 2,600 women imprisoned in Oklahoma, which reflects a rate of 131 per 100,000 residents. The national average is 69 per 100,000 residents. This makes Oklahoma No. 1 in the nation for female incarceration, which is a dubious ranking.

Most of the women incarcerated are serving sentences for non-violent crimes, many of them related to drugs.

Does Oklahoma have a cruel system when it comes to female incarceration? If so, does this cruel system only increase social problems when the children of incarcerated women find themselves without their mothers for extended periods of time? How does the system affect the state’s image?

The high cost of incarceration compared to other types of sentencing is another pressing issue, especially given the state’s current financial crisis. Parole and treatment programs are less expensive and help keep families intact.

The main problem, which the summit is sure to address, is that no one—prosecutors, judges and politicians—wants to appear to be soft on crime. How can the state reconcile the issue? What can it do to depoliticize some aspects of the system? Obviously, the system can never be completely depoliticized, but locking up women at the highest rate in the nation means something has gone awry here.

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