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Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison

Larry Yarbrough was sentenced in 1997 to life without parole for the sale of one ounce of cocaine. It’s hard to imagine someone being sentenced to that much time for such a small amount of drugs. But under the new guidance from Attorney General Sessions we will see more sentences like this handed out. Just last week Sessions told prosecutors to charge drug offenders with the harshest possible sentences they could give allowing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines to kick in in federal cases.

Through the hard work of supporters who advocated for Larry’s release, last year Gov. Mary Fallin gave Larry a commutation of his sentence. This allowed him to see the parole board who then denied his release despite Larry being at deaths door from a very serious heart condition.

On May 16 2017, Yarbrough appeared again before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board and this time he was finally granted parole. He will be released in about a month.

Larry was a non-violent offender who was serving a life sentence for an ounce of cocaine. He has been married for 42 years to his wife Norma and has 5 children and 13 grandchildren. 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. During his incarceration he has been a model inmate and has received commendations from the Department of Corrections and nonprofits for training guide dogs for the blind and disabled.

His story is featured in an upcoming documentary “Voices in a Jailhouse : The Larry Yarbrough Story” which examines and in-depth view of the Prison Industrial Complex. The documentary reveals the racism that exists in cases like Larry Yarbrough.

Several years ago I wrote about Larry in a piece titled “How Three Joints and an ounce of Coke Got an Oklahoma Grandfather Life without Parole.” Larry has had many supporters helping him regain his lost freedom. This includes his lawyer Debbie Hampton, Dennis Will, activist Gwendolyn Black and former Oklahoma Senator Connie Johnson. According to Sen. Johnson, Larry 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), Yarbrough’s life-without-parole sentence is clearly excessive.

Larry’s case is one of many that was featured in a report by the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU ) titled A Living Death: Life without Parole for Non Violent Offenses. The report documents thousands of cases of individuals who are sentenced to die in prison for non-violent crimes. It also points out that family members of those sentenced also suffer as prison does not end at the prison wall, it extends far beyond touching many lives.

Mark Faulk an advocate for Yarbrough for many years told me by email of the great news. He said “We are elated that Larry Yarbrough will get to live out the remainder of his life with family and friends, and we hope this victory will provide a road map for others in his situation to find a path to freedom.”

He goes on to say “you know the system is horribly broken when we are celebrating the freedom of a black man in Oklahoma who was wrongly convicted, spent 23 years in prison, and is now in a wheelchair, and the very next day a white police officer in Tulsa is acquitted after killing another unarmed black man. There is still no justice in our justice system.”

Anthony Papa is the manager of media and artists relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. He is the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency.

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Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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