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Life Without Parole in Oklahoma

by ANTHONY PAPA

Oklahoma State Senator Connie Johnson of Oklahoma thinks Larry Yarbrough should be free. Larry, a model prisoner, is in his 17th year of a life-without-parole sentence for a nonviolent drug crime. On August 17, Sen. Johnson will speak on behalf of Yarbrough at an Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board hearing that will be considering commuting Larry Yarbrough’s drug trafficking sentencing. In 2002 the Board unanimously commuted his sentence, but former governor Frank Keating overturned that decision and denied Larry his freedom.

If the board agrees with Senator Johnson, the new Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin will have the opportunity to commute Yarbrough’s life sentence for his non-violent drug offense.

According to Sen. Johnson, Yarbrough’s case is an excellent example of disproportionate and unfair sentencing. Compared to sentences received by others for similar amounts of the same drugs (an ounce of powder cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes), Larry’s life without parole (LWOP) sentence is clearly excessive. He has been incarcerated for 17 years, more than sufficient for what he actually did—and far longer than what many serve for the exact same offense.

The Oklahoma Legislature’s original intent in enacting LWOP was to create an alternative between life imprisonment and the death sentence in capital cases. However, unlike death penalty cases where in order to impose such a sentence the jury is required to find aggravating circumstances, a jury recommending LWOP needs no reason whatsoever. This fact guarantees disproportionate and inherently unfair sentencing. At this time 44 people are serving life without parole sentences in Oklahoma for average drug crimes.

LWOP sentences for drug crimes have not resulted in decreased drug trafficking. Instead, they have committed Oklahoma taxpayers to paying $23,000 per year, per person (at present rates) to lock up a growing number of people for life. Taxpayers also are committed to covering prisoners’ medical expenses (expected to triple) as they age, get sick, and die.

The best readily available remedy to rectify such inherently unwise and unfair sentencing is for the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to review LWOP sentences on a case-by-case basis and to recommend commutation of these sentences as they deem appropriate. Case-by-case reviews build in safeguards. There will be those whose sentences – either because of the nature of the crimes they committed or because of their behavior in prison – will not be commuted. Handling these cases through the Pardon and Parole Board instead of the Legislature is the more cautious alternative.

The power to commute any sentence—be it the death penalty or imprisonment—is at the very heart of the governor’s Constitutionally-granted clemency power. The Constitution also grants authority to the Pardon and Parole Board to review sentences and to consider recommending clemency to the governor. Reviewing LWOP sentences is part of that job. Recommending commutation of some of those sentences, including life without parole, is the most fair and reasonable way to address the unfairness in sentencing that presently exists.

Larry Yarbrough has never had a single write-up during his incarceration. He has received commendations from the Department Of Corrections and nonprofits for training guide dogs for the blind and disabled. He and his wife Norma are still married after 41 years. They have 5 children and 13 grandchildren, ranging in age from 9 months to 19 years. Before his incarceration, Larry and Norma owned and operated a popular BBQ restaurant in Kingfisher where he was known for giving back to his community. Upon his release, Larry’s daughter, Lanita, and her husband plan to open a BBQ restaurant in Pittsburgh, CA for Larry to run.

These are tough times for state governments as well as most Americans. For these reasons, continuing to incarcerate Larry Yarbrough is very poor stewardship of our state’s limited resources. According to Charles Savage of the New York Times in a recent article titled “Trend to Lighten Harsh Sentences Catches On in Conservative States,” he points out that states fanned by the financial crisis, a wave of sentencing and parole reforms is gaining force as it sweeps across the United States, reversing a trend of “tough on crime” policies that lasted for decades and drove the nation’s incarceration rate to the highest — and most costly — level in the developed world. While liberals have long complained that harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses like drug possession are unjust, the push to overhaul penal policies has been increasingly embraced by elected officials in some of the most conservative states in the country. And for a different reason: to save money.

LWOP for drug crimes is a policy we can ill afford, especially since it has done nothing to deter drug trafficking. Hopefully, these facts will inspire and motivate you to act, and to also get your friends to join you in writing letters to Governor Fallin in support of Larry and ending the injustice of LWOP. Together we can demonstrate the power of the people, step up, and help make the right thing happen.

Please contact Gov. Mary Fallin at 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd., OKC, OK, 73105/ E-mail: info@gov.ok.gov

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: anthonypapa123@yahoo.com 

Anthony Papa is a manager of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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