This is a number that ought to command the attention of every Oklahoma taxpayer: $50.6 million.
No, it's not this week's Powerball jackpot. Nor is it the prize money at your nearby casino's upcoming blackjack tournament. It's not even Sooner Coach Bob Stoops' latest contract.
Fifty-million-dollars-plus is what it's projected to cost us -- the taxpayers -- to incarcerate 48 non-violent drug offenders for the entirety of their life-without-parole sentences.
Let that sink in: $50.6 million of your money. A mere 48 inmates. Convicted of non-violent crimes.
Can you spell i-n-s-a-n-i-t-y?
Oklahomans are renowned for being among the friendliest, most neighborly folk on the planet, but it's time we face an uncomfortable truth: We can be nasty punitive.
Our sanctimonious, throw-the-book-at-'em mentality results in a dubious distinction: We're No. 1 nationally in the rate of incarcerating women, No. 3 for men.
And it's bankrupting us. It costs the taxpayers about $23,000 a year to house and care for each of the state's 25,000-plus inmates -- more than half of whom are serving sentences for non-violent offenses.
The longer we keep these non-violent offenders locked up, the more it's going to cost -- people tend to need more medical care the older they get. Who pays when inmates get sick, require surgery or are hospitalized? The taxpayers.
Republican House Speaker Kris Steele is one who acknowledges the insanity -- and is determined to do something about it.
His package of penal reforms approved last session was an excellent first step. And he's working overtime in advance of next year's session to produce smart-on-crime solutions that stretch the taxpayers' dollars and ensure public safety.
Less well known is the quiet, but determined work of state Sen. Constance Johnson.
It's doubtful many outside Johnson's northeast Oklahoma City district have ever heard of her. She's a former longtime state Senate staffer who's now in her second Senate term. She's one of two African-American women (along with Tulsa's Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre) in the Senate. And she's got more guts than many of her higher-profile colleagues who -- sad to say -- feel compelled all-too-often to consult polls and study campaign contribution reports before deciding how to vote.
If you know the Holdenville-born, Ivy League-educated (University of Pennsylvania) Johnson at all, it may be because she often tilts at the state's biggest windmills.
For example, she's working to end the death penalty, arguing it is disproportionately applied to the poor, it's far more expensive than incarcerating inmates for life without parole and it's unconscionable to risk executing innocent people -- so far, there have been 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations in U.S. history, including 17 inmates sentenced to death.
She also is promoting legislation that would legalize medical marijuana in Oklahoma. Senate Bill 573, billed as the Compassionate Use Act of 2011, wasn't heard in the recent session, but is still alive for the next (beginning in February).
Now, she's introducing legislation (Senate Bill 986) that would eliminate life without parole sentencing for non-violent crimes, citing the unfair, punitive nature of the punishment, its high cost to taxpayers and its burden on families.
Johnson last week used a high-profile Pardon and Parole Board case to underscore her point that the law is punitive.
Larry E. Yarbrough, 61, was sent to prison for life in 1997 on a cocaine trafficking conviction. In the 1980s, he served time on convictions for LSD and marijuana distribution and he served probation for a felony conviction of receiving stolen property.
Three strikes and out.
It's a great campaign slogan, but lousy public policy -- it prevents well-trained, experienced judges, criminal justice experts and doctors from considering the nuance of each case.
There are degrees of seriousness, of course. But under this law, it doesn't matter. Nor does it matter if the convicted felon is judged to be no threat to society. Or if he or she is considered a solid candidate for substance abuse rehabilitation. Or if there are kids left behind with no one to care for them but the state.
By all accounts, Yarbrough has gotten his act together. He's widely regarded as a model prisoner. Even has counseled young men entering prison. If he ever should be released, he plans to move to California with his family.
The Pardon and Parole Board, in a split decision, decided to commute his sentence to 42 years, meaning he could be eligible for parole next year -- if Gov. Mary Fallin approves the board's recommendation.
The board recommended a commuted sentence for Yarbrough once before -- in 2002 -- but then-Gov. Frank Keating denied the request. Too much political heat to fade for an old guy from Kingfisher?
Like Steele, Fallin gets it -- she has indicated with her public utterances that Oklahoma's penchant for banishing just about every convicted offender to prison is unsustainable financially. Will she cut Yarbrough a break?
Either way, Yarbrough's case is symptomatic of bigger problems for Oklahoma. Drug abuse is a serious problem in this state, one that could be better attacked through treatment rather than incarceration. Myriad studies confirm this. Plus, it's far less expensive to divert offenders to drug courts, which by all accounts are extraordinarily effective in helping turn lives from abusers into law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.
Johnson also wants the Legislature to direct the Pardon and Parole Board to review each of the 48 cases involving those serving life-without-parole sentences for non-violent drug offenses -- to see if any other cases merit commutation.
Johnson's legislative proposal has the backing of several key groups: the ACLU, the NAACP and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), just to name a few.
Stan Basler, long-time director of the Oklahoma United Methodist Church's Criminal Justice and Mercies Ministries, also supports the change, arguing life without parole robs a convicted felon of any hope for redemption.
"Like everyone else, I want to win the war on drugs," he says. "I'm not sure that those sentences accomplish it."
The fact is, he says, the possibility that one day an inmate could be freed is "the most effective incentive for creating an environment for change."
Will Johnson's crusade succeed? It won't be easy in a state that celebrates its tough-on-crime persona.
If nothing else, maybe it will help begin to change the Oklahoma way of thinking. What if we were willing to trade the immediate satisfaction of punitive sentencing for the long-term benefit of less-crowded and less-costly prisons and redeemed souls who became contributing, taxpaying citizens?
Since we know we can't continue indefinitely on the road we're on, doesn't it make sense to give Johnson's proposals a chance?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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