Sen. Constance N. Johnson believes Oklahoma's sentencing guidelines regarding life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes are unfair, costly and, in the case of Larry Yarbrough, a waste of tax payer dollars.
Johnson believes Yarbrough’s case is a perfect example of the unfairness of the system and the magnitude of misspent millions. In 2010, Johnson introduced Senate Bill 2325 to address sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. Her bill, which was not given a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary, would have done away with life without parole sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. It would have also required the Pardon and Parole Board to review all existing life without parole sentences for nonviolent crime cases that are ongoing. Johnson also had another measure, SB 2328, that dealt with punishment enhancements for felony offenses. That measure was not given a hearing either. On Wednesday, she filed SB 986, a combination of her two previous bills, to be heard during the 2011 session.
Citing information obtained from the National Sentencing Project, Johnson feels her legislation will address the high cost of life without parole sentences, its shortsightedness, and its failure to allow the potential for transformative growth.
“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.
“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. 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 said. “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.”
According to the Department of Corrections, there are currently 48 individuals in the state corrections system serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent drug offenses (trafficking illegal drugs).
"We took a step in the right direction in the legislature this past session passing major reforms for our state’s correction system under House Bill 2131, which included taking the Governor out of the parole process for nonviolent offenses, expanding community sentencing eligibility, and GPS monitoring for nonviolent offenders. These steps which will save our state millions of dollars, and still protect the public from the state’s most dangerous, violent offenders,” said Johnson. “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.”
Yarbrough’s case, which has garnered national attention (http://tinyurl.com/4yfgwjm), will now go to Gov. Mary Fallin for consideration.
On Wednesday, Johnson attended Yarbrough’s hearing before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. A model prisoner, the 61-year-old is serving his 17th year of a life without parole sentence for a nonviolent drug crime. The Board recommended commutation of his sentence to 42 years; and Johnson is urging the Gov. Fallin to approve the Board’s recommendation. If she supports the recommendation, Yarbrough could be eligible for parole in February 2012.
In 2002, the Board recommended commutation of his sentence to 20 year, but the request was denied by then Gov. Frank Keating.
“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 Governor Fallin to accept the Board’s recommendations.”
Statement - Wes Johnson with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Mr. Johnson was one of the scheduled speakers at the press conference Wednesday. After it was rescheduled for Thursday, he unable to attend because of a previous court engagement, but provided these comments)