Harsh Punishments

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State Sen. Connie Johnson said she intends to introduce legislation next session that would end life-without-parole prison sentences for nonviolent drug convictions, a sensible and pragmatic idea that could save the state a lot of money.

But will her legislation get a fair hearing, and will Republicans budge on the issue?

In recent comments, Johnson, an Oklahoma City Democrat, referred to the case of 61-year-old Larry E. Yarbrough, who was sentenced to life without parole in 1997 after a cocaine trafficking conviction. His extreme sentence was mandatory because he had two prior felony convictions. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recently voted to commute his sentence to 42 years, which could make him eligible for parole next year. Gov. Mary Fallin will make the final decision in the case.

Johnson called Yarbrough a “poster child” for extreme sentencing.

The case reflects important issues facing our state and federal criminal justice system right now.

One issue is the exorbitant amounts of money Oklahoma, other states and the federal government spend each year to lock up nonviolent drug offenders. Johnson pointed out it costs Oklahoma taxpayers an average of $23,000 to house an inmate annually. Johnson’s proposed legislation, along with other ongoing efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, could save the state millions of dollars. Overall, the so-called War on Drugs, started in the 1970s by then-President Richard Nixon, has cost a staggering $26 billion in state and federal costs this year alone, according to one organization. By many accounts, the “war” has been an abject failure, filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders. The current process is not sustainable. We should focus on treatment and community sentencing for nonviolent offenders.

Another issue is the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Life sentences without parole are not in themselves unconstitutional, and sometimes there are pressing public safety reasons to keep certain individuals locked up, but one can make a legal argument that nonviolent offenders who face life without parole are receiving cruel and unusual punishment. It’s really just a form of modern-day, psychological torture. Just because a political body, such as a state legislature, sanctions excessive punishment, doesn’t mean it’s right.

Can common sense trump the let’s-get-tough-on-criminals mentality that has led to these three-strike laws throughout the country? It’s ultimately going to take a legislative solution. It’s rarely politically expedient for any governor or elected official to release someone from prison or commute a sentence. What if the convicted person goes on to commit another crime? That could ruin a political career. We need to remove politics from the parole process as much as possible.