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Drugs sentences vary, as judges use discretion

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
February 19, 2013

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The following was written by KOSU’s Quinton Chandler


In 2010 Patricia Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years for trying to sell $31 worth of marijuana. Shocked, the public rushed to her defense demanding her case be reviewed and the courts listened. A county judge cut her sentence by four years and by the end of last year she was paroled. But the questions how might a judge come to this decision? Does something outside the law play a role? 

Drug laws are made to be flexible. Depending on the circumstances of a case and the judge on the bench a defendant could look at going away for life, getting a deferred sentence or doing as few as 1-2 years. Spottedcrow’s sentence seems extreme at first glance. But Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics spokesman Mark Woodward says there’s probably more to the picture.

“First of all how many times has this person been arrested for this or similar crimes. A first time offender will probably get the lighter end of a sentence or even not have to serve a sentence at all.

“Where did the crime occur? 1,000 feet from a school, 2,000 feet from a day care? Were children involved?”

Spottedcrow was a first time offender, but her children were in her home at the time of the crime. According to the Oklahoman the late Judge Pritchett was stunned Spottedcrow made the deal in front of her children. She tossed out the plea deal for two years in prison and slapped the mother with hard time. Technically the law backs up her decision.

Brady Henderson, Legal Director for the ACLU, says judges deliver the best rulings when they don’t use technicalities in the law to punish individuals more harshly.

“When judges and prosecutors are consistent in what they do the outcomes are vastly better. When they use discretion in the law to essentially enforce private doctrines that’s when problems spring up.”

Henderson says usually, judges only show bias towards particular drugs.

“…Or other things about a particular class of defendant maybe a particular neighborhood where they think drugs are a bigger issue. It’s sort of making policy that punishes all offenders in a certain class that really isn’t logical for the community.”

Spottedcrow’s case was resolved and she’s free, but she’s not the only person to get a questionable sentence. Jim Rowan, a defense attorney, says judges punish more harshly for different reasons, but it’s just something the defense has to be aware of.

“Defense lawyers are very careful about who they allow their clients to plead guilty to and all the defense lawyers in a county will know which judges are harsh on which crimes.”

So I asked, “Do you believe that is crossing the line ethically to use the gray areas of the law to punish more harshly?”

“No, people should educate themselves more about who they put on the bench. I think under our system when judges are elected most of the public know precious little about the people they are electing as judges.”

I asked Judge Philip Corley out of Payne County if it’s true judges give rulings flavored by personal bias. He didn’t want to be taped but he said sentencing gets very complicated. There’s a lot going into a decision, and most of the time judges have information on a defendant that isn’t available to the general public.

To answer my question, he said judges shouldn’t let their biases and prejudices influence a ruling and they should always follow the law equally, but they’re human and some of them don’t do that.

Brady Henderson says usually they’re just trying to do their job…. protect society.

“I think we see it a lot more with drugs like methamphetamine. In that case it very often is very rationally related to the real threats going on in the community.”

“….Practitioners in areas of social work, law enforcement, even education can cite statistics, when you’re talking about drugs like methamphetamine that show much more severe impacts on families and on the community.”

Everyone I talked to agrees that for the most part judges are fair and they give the appropriate sentences. But, Brady says, that probably doesn’t mean much to the person who goes to prison a little longer. To solve the problem Jim Rowan says it may be time to pay attention to who you’re electing as a judge.


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