OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s legislature is living up to its tough-on-crime reputation with the passage of a bill making it easier to send child offenders to prison with no chance for parole.
While many states across the country are easing no-parole sentences for children, Oklahoma’s Republican-led legislature shifted in the other direction this session and approved a bill to allow judges to put teenage offenders behind bars with no chance for release.
Pushed by the state’s prosecutors late in the session, the bill now under review by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin takes away a jury’s option to sentence an offender younger than 18 to life without parole and puts that responsibility solely in the hands of a judge.
Oklahoma’s district attorneys, a powerful lobbying force at the Capitol, argue the no-parole sentence should remain an option for certain young offenders.
The bill also seeks to comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling by allowing inmates who already have been sentenced for crimes committed before they were 18 to have a chance at resentencing.
The nation’s high court, which already banned the death penalty for child offenders and no-parole sentences for crimes other than murder, has said life-without-parole sentences are constitutional in some cases, but should be reserved for “all but the rarest of juvenile offenders.”
Oklahoma has at least 41 criminal defendants serving no-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were 17 or younger, including Chancey Luna, who was 16 when he fatally shot Christopher Lane, a college baseball player from Australia who was jogging in Duncan.
Jason Hicks, the district attorney who prosecuted Luna, agrees no-parole sentences should be rare, but said they are warranted in certain cases like Luna’s that involved a particularly heinous killing and a pattern of criminal behavior.
“This kid (Lane) has got his entire life in front of him, and just to have it cut short because somebody is driving down the road and decides to stick a gun out the window and take him out ... it’s one of the coldest acts I’ve seen,” Hicks said.
Fallin spokesman Michael McNutt said the governor’s staff is still reviewing the measure, and it’s not clear whether she’ll sign it into law. Now in her final year in office, Fallin has increasingly made reducing the state’s prison population a top priority and pushed for changes to the state’s harsh sentencing laws that have pushed Oklahoma to the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, behind only Louisiana.
Given the Supreme Court’s guidance on the issue, most states are now moving in the opposite direction, banning no-parole sentences altogether. While there were only five states that banned such sentences before the court’s 2012 decision, there are now 20 states and the District of Columbia that prohibit them, including neighboring Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Colorado.
“We’ve really seen incredible momentum for banning life-without-parole sentences for children over the last five or six years,” said James Dold with The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which opposes no-parole sentences for children. “Oklahoma really has been a national outlier.”
At least two states — Louisiana and Missouri — have passed laws preserving no-parole sentences for juveniles in some cases.
A bipartisan group of Oklahoma legislators endorsed a separate bill this session to end the practice altogether, but it never got a hearing in the House. Instead, the language now on the governor’s desk emerged just weeks before the session ended in the form of an amendment by Rep. Harold Wright, the No. 2 leader in the House whose daughter is a district attorney in western Oklahoma.
Wright said he pushed the bill primarily in response to the killing of a teenage girl in his district by her 17-year-old boyfriend, who was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
“The DAs involved in these kinds of cases felt like something needed to be done,” said Wright, R-Weatherford.
But several legislators on both sides of the aisle said the bill wasn’t properly vetted and few had a chance to read the 14-page amendment that came out in the legislature’s hectic final weeks.
“It was completely railroaded,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, a Norman Democrat and an attorney who was working on the bill to ban no-parole sentences for juveniles. “It was extremely frustrating, especially when you’re considering putting kids away for their entire lives.”