This year the Supreme Court denied certiorari to Cecelia Cathleen Rodriguez, a 61- year old woman from Oklahoma sentenced to life in prison. Her crime was theft of two purses from a department store. Ms. Rodriguez hoped that the Supreme Court would see fit to upend her conviction or declare her sentence excessive. Ms. Rodriguez's family reported to the state court that she has struggled with heroin addiction since the 1960s, leading to numerous arrests on petty charges. The majority of her extensive record was composed of petty thefts, drug possession, and other nonviolent offenses. The stolen bags in this, her ultimate case, totaled less than $700 in value.
Ms. Rodriguez was sentenced under Oklahoma's grand larceny statute, which applies to thefts over $500. Like many schemes around the country, the sentencing guidelines for the offense mandated a habitual offender enhancement. The mandatory minimum for an individual with Ms. Rodriguez's record is four years. The law allows up to life in prison for the theft offense.
In the past year, many states revisited disproportionately high sentencing schemes for low-level property offenses. Voters in states across the country rallied in favor of reductions in penalties for low-level, nonviolent property offenses, such as theft, check fraud, and larceny. Bipartisan efforts to ease the financial burden of incarceration have lead to criminal justice reforms in states like California, Oregon, and Mississippi. Advocates for women in the criminal justice system have embarked on campaigns to frame reforms as not just a cost-cutting measure, but a moral imperative.
For many women, primarily women with little money, relatively low-value property offense convictions can lead to devastatingly disproportionate consequences, such as the trauma of incarceration and the marginalization that follows a serious criminal record. The tremendous sanctions that currently exist for low-level nonviolent property offenses have sparked a call amongst advocates for policy change. Women-centered campaigns argue for greater nuance in the justice system's response to women charged with property offenses.
American Bar Association
Mark Wojcik, Kyo Suh, Jane Messmer
The State of Criminal Justice 2015
Amber A. Baylor, Changing Punishments for Property Offenses, To Change the Lives of Women in Need, in American Bar Association, The State of Criminal Justice 2015, 175-80 (Mark Wojcik, ed. 2015)