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Groups: Commutation in Drug Case Could Offer Hope to Inmates

Justice reform groups are hopeful that Gov. Mary Fallin's recent decision to commute the sentence of an inmate serving life without parole for possessing an ounce of cocaine could lead to the re-evaluation of cases for about four-dozen prisoners handed similar terms for nonviolent drug-related crimes.

Fallin granted the commutation for 66-year-old Larry Yarbrough earlier this year, converting his sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Yarbrough will appear later this month before the state Pardon and Parole Board, which will consider paroling him. He's been imprisoned since 1997 and family members and his attorney say he's in poor health, suffering from congestive heart failure and diabetes, among other ailments.

Yarbrough is among just three commutations the governor has issued since 2012, and Fallin said she did so in his case because he was sentenced "at a time when Oklahoma's drug laws were overly harsh, when jurors had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole."

"He has completed behavior modification, anger management and other life skills programs during his 20 years in prison without drawing a single misconduct citation from prison officials," Fallin said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Oklahoma, with the nation's second-highest incarceration rate, is among many states that have passed sentencing reform laws giving courts more discretion in how nonviolent offenders are punished.

President Barack Obama has made it a priority during his second term to seek the reduction or outright elimination of severe mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders.

In July, Obama visited the Federal Correctional Institute at El Reno - the first sitting president to visit a federal prison - and conducted in-depth interviews with six inmates convicted of non-violent drug offenses about the impact that lengthy sentences have on their families and communities.

Some groups say Yarbrough's commutation could improve the chances for dozens of other inmates serving life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses who apply for similar relief. Of five commutation applications currently before the governor, three are from inmates with similar sentences, governor's spokesman Michael McNutt said.

"This is an historic move," said Mark Faulk, a justice reform advocate and filmmaker. "To say that we're willing to consider every one of those life-without-parole sentences, that's lives that can be saved, and millions upon millions upon millions of dollars."

McNutt said Fallin's decision to commute Yarbrough's sentence wasn't made over cost-cutting concerns. The state is facing a $1.3 billion budget shortfall and cuts to state agencies, education and other services have been proposed to shore up finances.

Yarbrough's release is far from guaranteed. Prosecutors who opposed the inmate's first two commutation recommendations - both eventually rejected by then-Gov. Frank Keating and Fallin - argue that Yarbrough is a five-time felon who had prior drug-related convictions.

"Over a period of several years, he was convicted of delivering drugs five separate times and the punishment for those five separate times wasn't enough to make him stop," said Mike Fields, the district attorney for the county Yarbrough was convicted in. "Despite (the convictions), he continued and was eventually charged a sixth time, and that was for trafficking."

Yarbrough's supporters remain hopeful.

Retired pastor Marc Dreyer served five years on the state Pardon and Parole Board under two governors and had twice voted to recommend Yarbrough for commutation.

Dreyer, citing the state's budget crisis, said Oklahoma can't afford "to house all the people we're mad at versus all the people we're afraid of."

"The day has passed when we can continue to put as many nonviolent offenders in prison as we do," said Dreyer, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

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