Oklahoma Bill Would End 'Life Without Parole' Drug Sentences

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By Phillip Smith

Go to jail

Despite some recent sentencing reforms, Oklahoma has some of the toughest drug laws in the country, including life without parole for some drug offenses, but now, one Oklahoma legislator says it is time for life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses to go.

State Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) Wednesday introduced Senate Bill 986 (no link yet available), which would end life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug offenses and require the state Pardon and Parole Board to review all existing life without parole sentences for those offenses. The measure also addresses punishment enhancements for felony offenses.

"Numerous studies have shown that these sentences do not reduce drug use, but rather result in lengthy prison terms that contribute to overcrowding and increased costs," Johnson said, citing research from the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based research and advocacy group. "We must develop more reasonable and cost effective policies to address drug crimes rather than locking up offenders for life, something that financially hurts the state as well as the families of these individuals."

Although Johnson had scheduled a press conference Wednesday to announce the introduction of the bill, the announcement was delayed for a day because she wanted to attend a Pardon and Parole Board hearing for one of the victims of the life without parole law, 61-year-old Larry Yarbrough, who is 17 years into his life sentence for possession of an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes after having previous felony convictions, including distribution of marijuana and distribution of LSD in the 1980s.

Yarbrough, a model prisoner whose case has garnered national media attention, had been recommended for a commutation to 20 years by the parole board in 2002, but that recommendation was vetoed by then Gov. Frank Keating (R). He had better luck Wednesday, with the board commuting his sentence to 42 years, meaning he will be eligible for release sometime next year if Gov. Mary Fallin (R) agrees.

Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson

Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson

At the parole board hearing were more than two dozen supporters, including members of Yarbrough's family, his attorney, Sen. Johnson, and one of the jurors in the case that got him sentenced to life. That juror, Dennis Will of Hennessey, sent a letter to the board last week urging the board to release Yarbrough. In the letter, Will said he did not vote for a life sentence for Yarbrough and believes "he was set up and railroaded by the Kingfisher County judicial system."

Yarbrough, who is imprisoned at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville, testified via electronic link. He told the board he had undergone numerous drug treatment programs and had acted as a mentor for newly arriving prisoners sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses. There are currently 48 drug lifers in the Oklahoma prison system.

"This is a victory," Yarbrough's attorney, Debra Hampton, told the Associated Press after the board commuted his sentence.

"We have murderers, rapists and child molesters getting paroled, but here is a husband, father, grandfather, business owner and community servant who could spend half his life in prison costing the state millions of dollars," said Johnson. "We have people serving less time for greater amounts of drugs than what Mr. Yarbrough was convicted of–an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes. Surely 17 years is a long enough punishment for his crime. In the name of justice and common sense, I urge Gov. Fallin to accept the board’s recommendations," she added.

"Wednesday’s hearing was timely with regard to a statewide advocacy push to achieve this and other measures that evidence shows will reduce the costs of incarceration to our state," Sen. Johnson continued. "Fortunately, other state and local officials are beginning to see that the current system has filled our prisons to near capacity, cost the state millions in tax dollars, and still isn’t working."

Johnson was referring to the passage in May of House Bill 2131, a sentencing reform bill sponsored by the Republican legislative leadership. That bill, now the law of the land, removes the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenses, expands community sentencing eligibility, and provides for GPS monitoring of nonviolent offenders.

"We took a step in the right direction in the legislature this past session passing major reforms for our state’s correction system under HB 2131, which will save our state millions of dollars, and still protect the public from the state’s most dangerous, violent offenders. These were great first steps but we have even more to do this coming session and beyond. We need to ensure that offenders’ sentences fairly match their crimes, both as a matter of human decency and fiscal responsibility," said Johnson.

Johnson introduced legislation to eliminate life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses in 2010, but that bill was bottled up in committee and went nowhere. Let's hope that the legislature's passage of sentencing reform this year and the parole board's commutation of Yarbrough's sentence are indicators of changed attitudes in the state this year and beyond.

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