Why did Oklahoma and the rest of the nation impose a brutal War on Drugs during the crack and methamphetamine crises of the 1980s and 1990s? Would states have adopted the cruelty of three-strikes laws if government officials had personally known victims of those epidemics? Above all, will Oklahoma actually end the cycle of imprisonment that’s feeding more crime and drug abuse, as opposed to just talking about it?
These questions and others related to them formed the framework for The Atlantic magazine’s Defining Justice event Wednesday at the Will Rogers Theatre in Oklahoma City (video above is fourth in a playlist of eight segments from the event).
Gov. Fallin fields questions on reform
The Atlantic’s Alison Stewart was warm and polite as she asked Gov. Mary Fallin about the realities of Oklahoma’s over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders with drug problems. Stewart asked Fallin if she could remember a time, outside her professional life, where she had met someone who had been incarcerated and what she had learned from it. Fallin faltered as she acknowledged that she didn’t know any such persons in her pre-professional life.
Later in the interview, Stewart’s opening question proved to be prescient: When Fallin addressed today’s opioid crisis, which affects Oklahomans of all ages, races and economic classes, she repeated today’s habitual soundbite, “Is there anybody in this room who has not known somebody with substance abuse issues?”
Stewart noted that Oklahoma has been No. 1 in the nation for its female incarceration rate since 1991, and Fallin has held governmental offices since 1990. Stewart asked, “Why did you take interest (in over-incarceration) in your later years?”
At first, Fallin denied she’d been slow in dealing with the cycle of punishment. Then she said, “Frankly, it’s hard to get people to really delve into criminal justice issues.” She then blamed legislators, the police and the voters for locking up so many nonviolent offenders.
Real solutions required to heal real pain of real people
Fortunately, the forum — which was conducted in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal web site and in coordination with Oklahoma Watch — focused not on the rhetoric of reform but on the real pain inflicted on flesh-and-blood people as well as really implementing solutions. The voters took a first step by passing State Questions 780, which reduced the penalties for drug possession and certain theft crimes.
The Legislature has been told that Oklahoma’s overflowing prisons are projected to grow by 25 percent if lawmakers do not take action. Across the state, however, the length of sentences for women possessing or distributing drugs has continued to increase, up 29 percent increase in the past decade. The judges in only one county, Tulsa, have led the way in reducing sentences by 25 percent.
The Legislature and the governor have taken some small steps, such as passing laws that assess inmates’ cases and offering more training to officials, but they have yet to tackle the financial roots of much of the problem. It’s bad enough that prosecutors often condemn female drug offenders as if they were murderers, but county jails that are underfunded by 50 percent greatly exacerbate the local problems. This perpetuates a cycle in which fees and fines are required to keep jails open, leading to the re-incarceration of former inmates who can’t afford to pay them.
The case of Patricia Spottedcrow
In 2010, Patricia Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years in prison after taking a blind plea for $31 of marijuana. The first-time offender received that stiff sentence from Judge Susie Pritchett, who Ginnie Graham of the Tulsa World said “was up front about being fed up with drug use and was appalled the two sold pot with children in the home.” (Spottedcrow’s mother was also charged).
During the event’s related discussion, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler made several constructive statements, but found himself on thin ice with the audience in saying that Oklahoma has “the most liberal drug-possession laws in the country.” His most valuable contribution, however, seemed inadvertent.
Although he lacked evidence to the contrary, Kunzweiler challenged Spottedcrow’s claim that she was imprisoned for her first offense, saying he’d like to hear law enforcement’s side of the story. The audience was almost certainly given a glimpse of the prejudgments prosecutors make:
(Editor’s note: According to Oklahoma State Supreme Court Network, Spottedcrow had a misdemeanor charge dismissed in 2007 for a bogus check charge and then received a second felony possession conviction in October 2010 following the January 2010 conviction for which she made the blind plea.)
Nonprofit director, Tulsa prosecutor bump fists on reform
A question from the audience about the role of private prisons led to an even more constructive discussion. Former House Speaker Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), condemned profit-making on the backs of inmates as immoral.
After summarizing the damage done by the privatization of the criminal justice system, Steele said it is equally immoral for government to profit from the fees and fines that keep people trapped in the system.
Kunzweiler, the Tulsa prosecutor, said he agreed and asked Steele whether he would join him in bringing that message to the Legislature. Steele responded with a fist bump.
(Editor’s note: For the sake of transparency, it should be noted that the author of this commentary asked a question from the audience unrelated to criminal justice reform. That question, which focused on education issues, can be heard here.)