Marijuana sales and decriminalization has helped some people get rich and build lucrative legal businesses. However, the lack of federal decriminalization and legalization laws has made it possible for people of color to continue to be over punished for marijuana-related offenses. Patricia Spottedcrow is a Black and Native American women who have experienced this reality.
In 2010, Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling $31 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop. A single mother, Spottedcrow said she needed extra money and decided to sell the little amount of marijuana to get some. Despite this being her first offense, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Almost immediately, her sentencing caught national attention and advocates began to rally for her release.
Spottedcrow’s sentencing and the financial issues that arose afterwards clearly illustrate how the United State’s justice system is, at best, flawed.
Oklahoma has been dubbed the World’s Prison Capital for having the highest number of incarcerated residents. According to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, one in five (22%) of Oklahoma’s state population is incarcerated. However, this type of infamous honor is not on accident. As a state, Oklahoma has made it a priority to over sentence people for any type of crime. The judge who sentenced Spottedcrow to 12 years for her first time nonviolent offense said she felt that the sentence was ‘too lenient’.
A law passed in 2000 requires that people sentenced should complete 85 percent of their sentences for certain crimes before being considered for ‘early’ release. This, coupled with the state’s mandate that anyone convicted of a felony three times will receive life in prison, has led to people being behind bars longer and overcrowding. Furthermore, “Oklahoma is also one of only a few states where the governor must approve a parole grant for anyone convicted of certain offenses involving violence.”
Native American communities encounter disproportionate negative interactions with police, judges, and prisons. Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate 38% higher than the national average, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to a report compiled by the Lakota People’s Law Project, Native American men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men; Native American women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women.”
Advocates believe that Spottedcrow’s being of mixed ethnicity – Native and Black American – may have played a role in her sentencing. Today, Spottedcrow is out of prison after spending two years in prison. However, fines, past due bills, and legal fees and penalties continue to burden her family. Thankfully, people raised funds to help the family pay off debt but the struggles may still continue because of the felony conviction.
Spottedcrow’s experience is another example of the need to address how racial and ethnic bias show up in the justice system and to end a cash bail system. Earlier this year, Spottedcrow was once again incarcerated for failure to pay almost $4,000 in legal fees connected to her 2010 arrest and prison sentences. A legal system that relies on a cash bail system penalizes financially poor people. In many states, if someone is unable to pay their legal fees they are kept in jail. The reality is a cash bail system is a barrier to freedom for many people and for others, can lead to death. Federal decriminalization laws for marijuana are needed. People should not be facing jail, prison, or legal penalties for marijuana while universities offer Masters in Marijuana and affluent communities continue to make money off of marijuana.
Justice reform advocates in Oklahoma hope that the next legislative session brings about more laws that help reduce the cultural judicial practices of the state. It’s bittersweet, but today Spottedcrow is now out of prison and back together with her children and husband. We hope that she is able to obtain gainful employment and live outside of the grips of Oklahoma’s prisons and judicial system.