Patricia Spottedcrow of Oklahoma made headlines in 2010 when she was sentenced to 12 years in prison for her first criminal offense: the sale of a $31 bag of marijuana to an undercover informant. The senseless severity of her sentence caught the attention of advocates who quickly moved to support Spottedcrow, spawning a grassroots uprising that led to a highly unusual decrease in her sentence and, ultimately, to her early release on parole.
Last month, her story went public again when she was reunited with her four children and her mother, who cared for them during her two-year absence.
While Spottedcrow’s tale of early release is unusual, her excessive sentence is not. She is one of tens of thousands of people sentenced harshly for nonviolent drug offenses in our criminal justice system, which embraces extreme sentencing policies for minor crimes like no other country. Mandatory minimums, life sentences without parole, unforgiving three-strikes laws for nonviolent offenses, and drug policies that emphasize punishment over rehabilitation make the U.S. a shameful outlier when it comes to criminal justice. And all of these infamous laws and policies disproportionately affect people of color, like Spottedcrow (who is part Native American and part African American).
Spottedcrow’s incarceration also drew attention to Oklahoma’s increasingly crowded women’s prisons. Oklahoma imprisons women at a higher rate than any other state, in a nation that incarcerates the most women – in fact, the state’s female incarceration rate is almost twice the national average, leaving its prisons at capacity. Because women account for slightly less than 7 percent of the overall jail and prison population, the discourse on criminal justice reform is dominated by men’s incarceration rates, particularly men of color, who are egregiously overrepresented in jails and prisons. Yet, women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. Between 1977 and 2005, the female prison population grew by 757 percent. The war on drugs had a heavy hand in that increase—more than half of these women are incarcerated for nonviolent or victimless crimes such as drug possession, like Spottedcrow. As with our male prison population, women of color are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system—Black women represent 30 percent of incarcerated women in the U.S, even though they represent 13 percent of the general female population.
Because women represent a smaller segment of the prison population, fewer women’s prisons exist, and those that do tend to be far from the women’s homes and communities. Spottedcrow, for example, was housed at a correctional center about 200 miles from her children. Dee Starr, Spottedcrow’s mother and the caretaker of her four small children, earned just $200 a week at her job, which made visiting the prison prohibitively expensive; in the two years Spottedcrow spent behind bars, her children were only able to visit her three times. Like Spottedcrow, roughly 75 percent of women in prison are mothers, and 80 percent of these women are the primary caregivers of their children. Indeed, more than 1.7 million American kids under 18 have a parent in prison, which causes a disruptive ripple effect throughout their lives. The incarcerated parents are not the only ones punished by punitive drug laws.
Spottedcrow’s early release offers a happy, if complicated, ending. While she will return to her community and her children, her felony conviction will affect her ability to find work, receive public benefits, secure housing, and her eligibility for student loans should she return to school. Spottedcrow and her children will suffer a distinct socioeconomic disadvantage – not because she sold $31 worth of marijuana, but because of Oklahoma’s inhumane sentencing laws. Her story should shock our collective conscience. What is most astonishing is not what happened to this one woman, but the fact that this narrative has repeated and will continue to repeat itself. Unless our nation’s drug laws change, there will be other Patricia Spottedcrows, other lives torn apart and other children needlessly left parentless. The heartbreaking details will vary, but without sentencing reform, the agonizing impact will persist.