Sitting in her jail cell this week, Patricia Spottedcrow couldn't imagine where she was going to get the money she needed for her release.

In 2010, the young Oklahoma mother, who had been caught selling US$31 ($48) worth of marijuana to a police informant after financial troubles caused her to lose her home, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. It was her first-ever offense, and the lengthy sentence drew national attention, sparking a movement that led to her early release.

But once she was home free, Spottedcrow still owed thousands in court fees that she struggled to pay, since her felony conviction made it difficult to find a job. Notices about overdue payments piled up, with late fees accumulating on top of the original fines.

On Monday, the 34-year-old was arrested on a bench warrant that required her to stay in jail until she could come up with US$1,139.90 ($1786) in overdue fees, which she didn't have. Nearly a decade after her initial arrest, she was still ensnarled in the criminal justice system, and had no idea when she would see her kids again.

Advertisement

"I had no idea how I was going to pay this off," Spottedcrow told KFOR on Wednesday, after strangers raised the money for her release. "I knew I was going to be sitting here for a while."

Back in 2011, Spottedcrow became an unwitting poster child for criminal justice reform when the Tulsa World featured her in a series about women incarcerated in Oklahoma. Then 25, she had just entered prison for the first time, and didn't expect to be reunited with her young children until they were teenagers.

At the time of her arrest, Spottedcrow was unemployed and without a permanent home, the paper reported. She was staying at her mother's house in the small town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma, when a police informant showed up and bought an US$11 ($17) bag of marijuana. Two weeks later, he returned to buy another US$20 ($31) worth of the drug from Spottedcrow.

 Patricia Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2010. Photo / Supplied
Patricia Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2010. Photo / Supplied

Both mother and daughter were charged with distribution of a controlled substance, and, because Spottedcrow's children were at home when the transaction took place, possession of a dangerous substance in the presence of a minor.

"I was home on vacation and it was just there, and I thought we could get some extra money," Spottedcrow told the paper. "I've lost everything because of it."

The two women both were offered plea deals that would have netted them only two years in prison, the World reported, but Spottedcrow didn't want her 50-year-old mother, who has health issues, incarcerated.

Because neither had a prior criminal record and they had sold only a small amount of pot, they took their chances and pleaded guilty without negotiating a sentencing agreement, assuming they would be granted probation.

Instead, the judge sentenced Spottedcrow to 10 years in prison for the distribution charge, plus another two years for possession. Her mother received a 30-year suspended sentence so that she could take care of the children.

Advertisement

Kingfisher County Associate District Judge Susie Pritchett, who retired not long afterward, told the World she thought the sentence was lenient. The mother-daughter pair had been behind "an extensive operation," she claimed, adding, "It was a way of life for them."

Spottedcrow was initially jailed over a small amount of cannabis. Photo / 123RF
Spottedcrow was initially jailed over a small amount of cannabis. Photo / 123RF

Spottedcrow said that wasn't true. "I've never been in trouble, and this is a real eye-opener," she told the paper at the start of her prison stint. "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."

After the World's story published in 2011, supporters rallied around Spottedcrow's cause, urging officials to reconsider her punishment. At the time, Oklahoma had the highest per capita rate of female incarceration in the country, a title it continues to hold today.

Advocates contended that lengthy sentences like hers were part of the problem, and questioned whether racial bias could have played a role - Spottedcrow is part Native American and part African American.

That same year, a different judge reviewed Spottedcrow's sentence and agreed to shave off four years. Then, in 2012, then-Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, approved her parole. Spottedcrow got home in time to surprise her kids when they stepped off the school bus.

The American Civil Liberties Union described her release as a "bittersweet victory," noting that serving only two years of a 12-year sentence was highly unusual, but the penalty that she received for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense wasn't out of the ordinary for Oklahoma.

It also wasn't the end of her troubles. In 2017, five years after Spottedcrow was released from prison, Ginnie Graham, a columnist for the World, checked into see how she was doing.

The picture that she painted was dispiriting: Spottedcrow's growing family was living in a motel off the interstate because having a felony drug conviction on her record made it virtually impossible for her to find housing, and she hadn't been able to find work, either.

"I've never had Section 8 or HUD, but I need it now," she said. "I even called my (Cheyenne and Arapahoe) tribe to help, and they didn't. I called the shelters, and they don't take large families."

That same year, at a forum on criminal justice reform, Spottedcrow explained that she couldn't go back to working in nursing homes like she had done before her arrest because of her felony conviction. And in a small town like Kingfisher, every other potential employer already knew about her legal woes.

"I can't even go in and act like I feel good about getting this job, because they already know who I am," she said. "So it's been really hard."

While Spottedcrow struggled to care for her six children, the Kingfisher County Court Clerk's Office mailed out more than a dozen notices saying she had fallen behind on her payments. Each letter meant that the court had tacked on another US$10 ($15) fine, and that another $80 would be added on top of that if the office didn't get the money within 10 days.

When Spottedcrow first reported to prison, she owed US$2,740 ($4,297) in fines. After her release, she made payments at least every other month according to the World. But it barely made an impact on her ballooning debt: When she was arrested this week, she owed US$3,569.76 ($5,598).

"We ask folks for years and years to continue to not have any interaction with law enforcement, to pay these fines and fees, and to pay for this supervision," Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Oklahoma, told KFOR. "In a way, we just oftentimes set folks up for failure."

Spottedcrow's new arrest on Monday brought renewed attention to her nearly decade-old court case. KFOR morning news anchor Ali Meyer, who detailed the saga in a widely shared Twitter thread, noted that cannabis has been a booming industry in Oklahoma ever since the state legalized medical marijuana in 2018, and left it up to doctors to determine who qualified.

On Tuesday afternoon, Meyer posted the number for the Kingfisher County Court Clerk's Office, which would allow anyone to make payments on Spottedcrow's behalf. By Wednesday, seven anonymous supporters had covered not just the US$1,139.90 ($1786) that she needed to get out of jail, but her entire US$3,569.76 ($5,598) outstanding balance, the station reported.

Smiling broadly as she left the Oklahoma County Jail, Spottedcrow thanked the strangers whose donations meant she was finally free.

"It's amazing," she said. "It feels wonderful. I don't even know what to say. It just feels really good. I feel like I hit the lotto."