February 20, 2011

Mom’s Case Typifies Sentencing Challenge

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Patricia Spottedcrow receives instructions Sgt. Skip Taylor inside Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center on the first day of her incarceration at the facility. Spottedcrow received a 10-year prison sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana to a police informant with her children present in Kingfisher, Okla. Spottedcrow, a mother of four, had no prior criminal record.

Adam Wisneski/Tulsa World

Patricia Spottedcrow receives instructions Sgt. Skip Taylor inside Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center on the first day of her incarceration at the facility. Spottedcrow received a 10-year prison sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana to a police informant with her children present in Kingfisher, Okla. Spottedcrow, a mother of four, had no prior criminal record.

For $31 of marijuana, Patricia Marilyn Spottedcrow will serve 10 years in prison, will live without her four young children and husband and will no longer work in nursing homes.

Three days before Christmas, Spottedcrow, also known as inmate No. 622641, started her stint at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.

Spottedcrow heard what to expect from re-offenders she met in county jail and while waiting for a transfer from Mabel Bassett, the maximum-security prison all female inmates enter for assessments.

Video clip: Surviving the Sentence

“I’m nervous about coming altogether because it is prison, and I get nervous around people I don’t know,” said Spottedcrow, 25. “But I like to be prepared, and people said don’t get too comfortable here or you’ll be here longer. Don’t make too many friends. Come and do your time and get out.”

‘It was lenient’

On Dec. 31, 2009, Spottedcrow and her mother, Delita Starr, sold a “dime bag” of marijuana to a police informant from Starr’s home in Kingfisher, according to court records. Starr handled the transaction and asked her 9-year-old grandson—Spottedcrow’s son—for some dollar bills so she could make change for the $11 sale.

On Jan. 14, 2010, the same informant returned and bought $20 worth of marijuana from Spottedcrow.

The two were arrested and charged with distribution of a controlled substance. Because Spottedcrow’s children were in the home, the charge of possession of a dangerous substance in the presence of a minor was added.Spottedcrow said she is not a drug user but had on a few occasions smoked marijuana.

“It just seemed like easy money,” she said. “I was home on vacation and it was just there, and I thought we could get some extra money. I’ve lost everything because of it.”

Spottedcrow and her mother, 50, were offered plea deals of two years in prison, she said. But she was afraid of her mother going to prison based on of her poor health.

Because neither had prior criminal records and the drug amount was low, they took the gamble of entering into a blind plea before a judge, meaning they pleaded guilty with no prior sentencing arrangement.

Kingfisher County did not have a drug court at that time. Drug courts are specialty treatment courts offered to non-violent offenders.

On Sept. 23, Starr received a 30-year suspended sentence and five years of drug and alcohol assessments. Nearly a month later, Spottedcrow was sentenced to 10 years in prison for distribution and two years for possession, to run concurrently. She will be up for parole in 2014.

Starr said the law enforcement version of the drug sales is “blown out of proportion” and criticizes the sentences as stiff.

“It shocked me and we cried for days,” she said.

Starr about $8,600 in fines, and Spottedcrow was assessed about $2,740 in fines.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d be here 10 years,” Spottedcrow said after she was checked into Eddie Warrior. “We were under the impression we would get probation. When I left for court, I just knew I was coming back home. It hit me like a ton of bricks. There were no goodbyes, they took me away right then.

“How do you tell your children you are going to prison? How do you prepare for this?”

Former Kingfisher County Associate District Judge Susie Pritchett, who retired in December, said the mother and daughter were operating “an extensive operation” and included children in the business.

“It was a way of life for them,” Pritchett said. “Considering these circumstances, I thought it was lenient. By not putting the grandmother in prison, she is able to help take care of the children.”

A pre-sentencing investigation prepared by the Department of Corrections rated Spottedcrow’s risk of re-offending as “high” and recommends substance abuse treatment while incarcerated.

“It does not appear the defendant is aware that a problem exists or that she needs to make changes in her current behavior,” the report states.

Spottedcrow has worked as a certified nursing assistant and certified medical assistant but was unemployed and did not have a stable residence at the time of her arrest, the report states. The family lost their Oklahoma City home for not paying bills, the report states.

“It is a concern of this officer that when she needed money to pay her bills, this is the avenue she chose rather than finding legitimate employment,” the report states. “The defendant does not appear remorseful for her committing this offense, and she makes justifications for her actions.”

Pritchett said on first drug offenses, sentences are usually suspended and may require treatment or random drug tests. Only if there are other more serious charges or circumstances is a first-time drug offender sent to prison, she said.

“When kids are involved, it’s different,” Pritchett said. “This was not a drug possession. This was a drug sale. When I look at someone in front of me, I’m thinking, ‘What is it going to take to rehabilitate this person?’ We look at their attitude and other factors that play into that.”

When Spottedcrow was taken to jail after her sentencing, she had marijuana in her jacket. She pleaded guilty to that additional charge on Jan. 24 and sentenced to two years in prison and fined nearly $1,300. The sentence will run concurrent with her other conviction.

Spottedcrow has four children—ages 9, 4, 3 and 1—and is determined to keep her eight-year, common-law marriage intact.

“It’s been really hard on my husband,” Spottedcrow said. “I signed in to do my time on our eighth anniversary. I know a lot of things can happen, but he’ll always have my back and be there.”

Her son is aware of what has happened, but the girls have been told their mother is away at college.

“I missed my daughter’s fourth birthday, and I’ll miss her fifth one too. My other daughter just started talking, and I’m not there to hear her. My baby woke up one day and doesn’t know where her mommy is. This is the hardest thing to do, and know I can’t do anything about it,” she said.

“I just have to focus on myself and take it day-to-day and plan for going home. I will want to see my kids at some point. I’m trying to take this slow. I can’t get depressed about it.”

‘HAPPENED WITHIN A DECADE’

Oklahoma’s two prisons for women—the maximum-security Mabel Bassett in McLoud and minimum-security Eddie Warrior in Taft—housed 2,622 prisoners last year.

Of those, 48 percent are serving time for non-violent drug offenses and 22 percent are in for other nonviolent offenses such as embezzlement and forgery.

All inmates are placed in maximum security at entry into the prison system until various intakes are complete, including a physical assessment, educational assessment and a psychiatric evaluation.

Of the 1,393 women received by state prisons in 2010, 78 percent were identified as minimal public safety threats, requiring minimum security or community corrections facility placements, according to a DOC report.

Most of the nonviolent offenders will spend their sentences at Eddie Warrior, which is an open campus design with a walking track and six dormitories.

When Lt. Eddie Bell, who is in charge of security at Eddie Warrior, began working at the facility in the early 1990s, each dorm had about 60 women with eight to 10 double bunks in the open day-room areas.

Now, dorms have about 120 women with nearly 50 bunks wedged next to each other. The bunks replaced the game tables, ironing boards and chairs that had been there in the early ’90s.

“This happened within a decade,” Bell said. “It’s a direct result of the 85 percent rule.”

Bell is referring to the 2000 law requiring inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences on certain crimes, which has grown from 11 offenses to 24. In December 2000, 53 inmates fell under the law; that rose to 5,086 by December 2009.

The number of officers at Eddie Warrior has gone from about 90 in the mid-1990s to 61 currently. Because of budget cuts, only correctional officer positions are being filled, which can take three to six months.

Bell said the issues in the women’s facility are different from a male center.

“Woman are much more social,” Bell said. “The offenders are more relaxed. It’s still a correctional center, and we have all the same rules and requirements. But female inmates conform a little better than male inmates, who may view kindness as a weakness.”

‘I’M ALREADY CHANGED’

Spottedcrow knows she will need to find a new job skill because her work in the health fields won’t be there because of her incarceration. She would like to open a boutique.

“Even though this seems like the worst thing that has happened, I’ve been blessed along the way,” she said. “It could have been worse. My mom could be here with me. I’m happy my kids are safe and, ultimately, I’m safe. I’m thankful I still have family.

“My kids are OK, and that’s a blessing. But you still feel like no one can take care of them like you can.”

In a year, Spottedcrow will have a review and hopes to shorten her time in prison.

“I’m already changed,” she said. “This is not what I want for myself. I’ve never been in trouble, and this is a real eye-opener. My lifestyle is not like this. I’m not coming back. I’m going to get out of here, be with my kids and live my life.”