Art Lawler Staff Writer email@example.com
“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.”
In other types of cases, he said, a defendant must serve 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
Still, in Oklahoma, a judge has quite a bit of discretion, he said.
“The sentencing judge still has the freedom to tailor the punishment to fit the crime,” he said. “For example, first-degree burglary carries 7 to 20 years. So a judge could give a seven-year sentence, which would require the defendant to serve just under six years before being eligible for parole,” Ross said.
Ross said the judge could also sentence the defendant to 20 years for the same offense. In such a case, a defendant would be required to serve 17 years before becoming eligible for parole.
Ross said a defendant convicted of murder, first-degree manslaughter, poisoning or shooting with intent to kill, drive-by-shooting, assault with intent to kill, assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, first-degree rape, first-degree arson, first-degree burglary, bombing, child abuse, child pornography, abuse of a vulnerable adults or aggravated trafficking in drugs, would have to serve 85 percent of his or her sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
He said first-degree burglary is commited when a defendant breaks into someone’s home with the intent to commit a crime while the homeowner is present. “While the act itself may not be violent, it is obviously an act that could lead to violence, such as a confrontation with the homeowner.”
Ross said “any law enforcement officer will tell you” the vast majority of crimes are substance related.
“It is not just a ripple effect,” he said. “It is more like a tidal wave. People who are high on methamphetamine and other hard drugs commit violent crimes while high. People who use these drugs are committing burglaries, robberies and other thefts to be able to purchase drugs.
“So, although the selling of drugs itself is not a violent crime, it certainly leads to violent crimes,” Ross said.
Sanford C. Coats, the U.S. Attorney General in Oklahoma City, expressed support for Holder’s initiatives but predicted the changes might not be dramatic.
“I can tell you that, in our district, most of our drug cases do involve either violent crime and/or organizational defendants that have ties to organizations involved in massive distribution of narcotics,” Coats was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s Daily Oklahoman.
If Holder’s policies are implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
“We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes,” Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
There are currently more than 219,000 federal inmates, and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Holder said the prison population “has grown at an astonishing rate — by almost 800 percent” since 1980. Almost half the inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.
Holder said he also wants to divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expand a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.
The speech drew widespread praise, including from some of the people Holder will need most — Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The Associated Press contributed to this report