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Oklahoma Bill Would End Life Without Parole Drug Sentences [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #698)
Drug War Issues

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

Sen. Constance Johnson
State Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) last 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 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.

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, businessowner 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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


MadAzHell (not verified)

as a long time resident of Oklahoma I've seen matters like this come up many times... and to date none have gone good for those involved... just this past spring the leg. here passed a law making the manufacture of hashish illegal, and punishable by life in prison... I truly wish the Yarbroughs luck, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were them.

Sat, 08/20/2011 - 10:34am Permalink
Mike Smeltzer (not verified)

Whenever I read about the so called "war on drugs" and all the victimless crimes that otherwise good honest citizens are subjected to cruel and unusual punishment for. I'm amazed how docile most citizens become when they submit to the justice system who ignores our Constitution when setting bail bonds and jail time.

These men and women took and oath to uphold both state and federal Constitutions. As such that would inclusively include the 8th Amendment to our American Constitution. The 8th forbids cruel and unusual punishments. Punishments like being drawn and quartered, dissection and a host of other dark ages punishments that where phased out with dungeons and broad swords.

Yet every day I read about unusual bails and jail time of decades being handed down off the bench by the very same judges who took and oath before taking office, to uphold the Constitution of the US of A.

I knew Texas was using these illegal sentencing laws on drug users, but now comes Oklahoma, entering a bill to finally comply with the Constitution as it is now understood, i.e. the 8th Amendment

We need every state to look at and reform the drug sentencing guidelines of every state so as to fall in line with the 8th Amendment, to stop these Draconian prison times, judges are handing down. 

Mon, 08/22/2011 - 4:08pm Permalink
Jim Buck (not verified)

It is ridiculous to cause the tax payers to pay for prison time for possession or sale of marijuana. When the people you work for want change. This should be one thing that would help save money on the budget. Also  it it could be good  for the government to tax the sale of marijuana just like alcohol with out the danger to the public. This would get read of the drug imports and loss of money that could be spent in the US.  I Thank You for your support.            

Tue, 08/23/2011 - 6:20pm Permalink
1 mom (not verified)

My daughter is serving a very  harsh sentence for drug related crime while a murderer I KNOW personally did two  (2) years in prison and got ten (10) on paper-parole-out here with the public. Oklahoma thrives on its little  shallow community mindset with everyone making up their own little temporary rules as they go along on their merry uninformed way. I have never lived in such a "know-it-all" (can't be taught) community. Please

God, intervene and let some open-minded people run for and win elections here in the back-assward state. 

Fri, 08/26/2011 - 12:07pm Permalink

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