In Oklahoma, a person can face life without parole along with up to $50,000 in fines for a first time non-violent drug offense, thanks to the passing of House Bill 1798, which enables this sentencing for anyone convicted of manufacturing hashish, cultivating marijuana, or selling. The Senate voted on the bill, 44-2, and the House approved it, 75 to 18, allowing the Legislature to pass it, back in April 2011. Under this House Bill, anyone facing a second offense will have doubled sentences and will be unable to receive a suspended sentence or probation.
Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Board of Narcotics, stated that the bill is meant to “send a message” that illegal drugs “will not be tolerated” in Oklahoma, but don’t you think life in prison is a little extreme for selling weed? Convicts are given shorter sentences for causing bodily harms to people – meanwhile, non-violent offenders are facing life in prison. Not only is this unfair to the sentenced person and their families, but each day in an Oklahoma prison costs $56 per person, which will then cost about $20,000 a year.
Many of you may have heard about Patricia M. Spottedcrow, the 25-year-old Oklahoma mother of four who was given a ten-year sentence for selling $31 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop back in February. Two years were added onto her sentence when police found marijuana in her jacket pocket as she was being picked up to go to prison. Her sentence has since been reduced to eight years. Her fifty-year-old mother, Delita Starr, who was present at the time of the undercover cop’s purchase, is facing a 30-year suspended sentence with no incarceration, but with five years of drug and alcohol testing.
“The punishment does not fit the crime,” said Josh Welch to Tulsa World, an Oklahoma City attorney who represents Spottedcrow. “We are pleased Judge Davis recognized her sentence needed to be modified, but we are simply not pleased with the amount of time that was modified,” Welch said. “I don’t walk away from this feeling good even with four years knocked down, and I’m not going to give up until she is released.”
Spottedcrow and Starr were both offered plea deals of two years in prison, because this was their first offense, but they took their chances and entered a guilt plea to the judge, without a prior sentence agreement. If you are ever faced with a similar situation, never enter a “blind guilty plea” like this.
This court case led to an uprising across the nation, with the creation of online petitions and donations to her children. A rally was held in Oklahoma City, featuring @waynecoyne of the The Flaming Lips.
State Senator Constance N. Johnson introduced Senate Bill 986, which would end life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug offenses and require the state Pardon and Parole Board to review all existing life without parole sentences for those offenses. The measure also addresses punishment enhancements for felony offenses. However, and as we all could have suspected, this bill has been completely disregarded by the state legislature.
Johnson continues fighting to reduce the sentencing for non-violent offenders facing life in prison, as she made an appearance at the parole board hearing for Larry Yarbrough, a 61-year-old who is seventeen years into his life sentence for possession of an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes after having previous felony convictions, including distribution of marijuana and distribution of LSD in the 1980s. There are currently 48 prisoners facing life in prisonin Oklahoma for non-violent, drug-related offenses.
“We have murderers, rapists and child molesters getting paroled, but here is a husband, father, grandfather, business owner and community servant who could spend half his life in prison costing the state millions of dollars,” said Johnson. “We have people serving less time for greater amounts of drugs than what Mr. Yarbrough was convicted of—an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes. Surely 17 years is a long enough punishment for his crime. In the name of justice and common sense, I urge Governor Fallin to accept the board’s recommendations,” she added.
Although Oklahoma currently has some of the harshest drug laws in the nation, Johnson believes that there is hope for reform, especially after the passage of House Bill 2131, a sentencing reform bill sponsored by the Republican legislative leadership, which removes the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenses, expands community sentencing eligibility, and provides for GPS monitoring of nonviolent offenders.
Johnson stated, “Fortunately, other state and local officials are beginning to see that the current system has filled our prisons to near capacity, cost the state millions in tax dollars, and still isn’t working…We took a step in the right direction in the legislature this past session passing major reforms for our state’s correction system under House Bill 2131, which will save our state millions of dollars, and still protect the public from the state’s most dangerous, violent offenders. These were great first steps but we have even more to do this coming session and beyond. We need to ensure that offenders’ sentences fairly match their crimes, both as a matter of human decency and fiscal responsibility.”