“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate, not merely to convict, warehouse and forget.” — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to the American Bar Association in San Francisco Monday.
The U.S. Attorney General’s speech calling for changes in the justice system that would reduce the length of sentences for some non-violent offenders has drawn favorable reaction from some Oklahoma officials, but Chris Ross, district attorney for Pontotoc County, is taking a more cautious stance.
While he agreed with Holder that sentences should be made appropriate to the crime, Ross said Oklahoma law already does that.
“There is no question that federal prisons and state prisons in Oklahoma are overcrowded,” Ross said. “However, saying a crime is ‘non-violent’ does not mean it is victim-less.
“In my opinion, there is certainly a case to be made for putting people who sell large amounts of drugs in prison for long periods of time. They spread a substance that poisons our citizens, destroys families and leads to more crime, and they do it for the money.
“On the other hand, small-time dealers should not be treated in the same manner as dealers of large amounts, and under Oklahoma law, they are not,” Ross said in an e-mail.
Ross said he wants a clearer definition of what constitutes a violent crime.
“If a person breaks into your home while you are away, under the law, this would be second-degree burglary, a non-violent crime,” Ross said. “Does this mean that person should not be sent to prison?”
Holder recommended convicted defendants receive sentences better suited to their individual conduct, “rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
“A mandatory minimum system is one in which a judge must sentence a defendant to at least X-number of years if he is convicted of a certain crime,” Ross said. “The federal system has numerous mandatory minimum crimes. Oklahoma’s law does not. Under Oklahoma law, there are few mandatory minimum sentences. These are only (given) in cases of repeat sex offenders or in the case of a person who commits a sex crime against a child under the age of 12.”