Am I such a danger to the people? (Guest Post: Camille Landry)

camille_landryCamille Landry is a writer, activist, and advocate for social justice who lives in Oklahoma City. This is the fifth in Camille’s series, “Neglected Oklahoma”, focused on Oklahomans who find themselves in a position where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. For previous installments, click here,  here and here.  The people whose stories we tell are real people and their stories are true. Names have been changed to protect privacy. 

David T. Johnson is incarcerated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections – one of over 25,000 people in the state to have that distinction.  David grew up in small-town Oklahoma.  He started drinking and smoking pot at the age of 17, then moved on to heavier drugs like meth, cocaine and pills.  After a few juvenile run-ins with the law he decided to clean up his life and quit using drugs.  

He enrolled in college to study mechanical engineering and managed to earn good grades while holding down a full time job.  Things were looking up, but the chance of a relapse is an ever present reality for addicts.  Stress from family problems eventually triggered a relapse of David’s addiction.  Despite the setback in his recovery, he stayed on track to graduate with an associate’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.  Until the day he got into an argument with his girlfriend in a convenience store parking lot.

The argument turned physical.  After his girlfriend slapped and punched him in the face, David held her down and was on the verge of hitting her back.  He chose instead to stop and walk away.  Onlookers called the police and David was charged with assault and with possession of a controlled substance –  for about $16 worth of methamphetamine.

He was also charged with interfering with a 9-1-1 call and with child abuse – because he shouted at the person who was calling the police and because that person was apparently a minor.  “I felt that the DA was just piling on charges so as to get the maximum sentence and appear ‘tough on crime,’” Johnson says.  No testimony was offered at his pretrial hearing as to the child abuse case and the charges of interfering with a 9-1-1 call were dropped.  But the DA used the charges as leverage to threaten, “You have two hours to either enter a plea of guilty or we will take this to a jury trial and I’ll see that you get a life sentence.”

Even after his girlfriend told both police and the judge that she was the only one who did any hitting, the DA refused to drop the assault charges.  At the suggestion of his public defender, he entered a plea of guilty.  Then David was hit with another statutory trump card: additional sentencing penalties because he was arrested within 1000 feet of a “park.” The convenience store parking lot backed onto a vacant lot where the city had just broken ground to put in a playground. Since it was zoned to be a playground even though no playground existed, the statute applied.

Prison-LifeDavid Johnson was sentenced to 15 years in prison and must serve 85% of his 15-year sentence before he is eligible for parole or points for early discharge – essentially time off for good behavior.  This amounts to a minimum of 12 years, 8 months in prison. It will likely be longer than that.  Only about 11 percent of inmates up for parole get approved for release, a contributing factor to near capacity prisons that costs Oklahoma taxpayers an average of $80 million per year.

“I know I was wrong,” Johnson says. “I messed up and I deserve to be punished.  But can you tell me, is this a reasonable sentence for somebody who got high, went to a convenience store parking lot and had a shouting match with his girlfriend? Am I such a danger to the people of Oklahoma that I should be locked up until I’m middle aged?”

Half of Oklahoma’s prisoners are being held for nonviolent offenses, and nearly 30 percent for nonviolent drug offenses.  “I’ve been in since 2007,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen hundreds of men who are locked up for a decade or more for possession of small amounts of drugs. Not for selling, not for fighting about drugs, not for stealing to support a drug habit, but for having half a joint or a couple grams of meth in their pocket. Our lives are pretty much over.”  

When David is eventually released his prospects for employment will be slim.  Oklahoma law puts up barriers for ex-felons pursuing employment even in professions that have no connection to their crimes and private employers routinely exclude applicants with a criminal history.  The employment situation is exacerbated by the lack of training available in our state’s prisons, and by strictures against financial aid for people with felony convictions. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that nearly a quarter of people released from Oklahoma prisons are eventually sent back. 

“I feel like the DA went out of her way to make sure my life was over,” Johnson says. He was two weeks away from earning an associate’s degree when he was convicted. The DA refused a short delay in his sentencing so that he could receive his degree. When he finishes his sentence, Johnson will have to complete mandatory drug rehabilitation before becoming eligible for financial aid, then complete a petition process to receive help with tuition, even assuming the university will readmit him.

Numerous officials and community leaders have advocated an overhaul of Oklahoma’s judicial and correction systems.  Once such effort, the Oklahoma Justice Reform Act, was signed into law last year.  Unfortunately it has not been fully implemented and the governor’s office chose not to utilize nearly $400,000 in federal training grants to begin implementing law.  

It’s too late for measured justice for David Johnson.  For every day that our leaders put off getting serious about reform, we risk losing another decent Oklahoman to mass incarceration as we continue to criminalize clinical addictions and construct draconian punishment schemes disproportionate to any harm an offender inflicted or any threat they pose to the community.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


4 thoughts on “Am I such a danger to the people? (Guest Post: Camille Landry)

  1. This is more fuel for mass incarceration that needs to be stopped! Stories like these shed light on the criminal handling of persons by our own government and judicial systems.

  2. What a sad commentary on the justice system in Oklahoma! And what a short-sighted DA who, in essence, abused her power just because she could! Unfortunately, with our current governor and legislators focusing on such important issues as tort reform that requires the convening of a special session, the revamping of our prison system and re-evaluation of our current laws concerning the extended incarceration of non-violent offenders is relegated to the back seat yet again. And, to top it all off, we basically condemn these ex-offenders, on their release to a future where obtaining gainful employment is going to be virtually impossible. We all need to take responsibility for insisting that these problems be discussed and dealt with by our elected officials in a reasonable and timely manner. When will we, the voters, wake up?

  3. Many people think substance abuse is relatively harmless to society as a whole. But there are real cesequences of a parent who is using drugs; neglect, physical, verbal, and failure to protect the child. Addiction is a family issue where incarceration has no effect in any long term positive solutions for the addict or the family that suffers because of it. A combination of substance abuse therapy, individual counseling, and family therapy is more of a holistic approach.

  4. How sad, this man’s life has been taken by a DA who wanted to look good in the news. We have a BROKEN justice system and it can affect YOU too! There are many innocent people in OK prison and many who got WAY more than they deserved, like this unfortunate man. SHAME on the DA for threatening an honest man with his life, and for not allowing him 2 weeks to finish his degree!! Who does that to people? Abuse of power happens ALL THE TIME! Our justice system is NOT REAL JUSTICE, nor timely! You wait months, even years for a trial, have to be totally ready all the court dates that get postponed. By that time many have forgotten important details. Our Crim Just sys needs stinks!! We need healing and appropriate treatment, training, purpose for people in prisons, and reasonable time that matches the crime. And We need to examine the power abuse that truly is RAMPANT, ruining lives! Corruption is abusive and abuse is WRONG, DA’s, Judges, attys, DHS workers, correctional system are all participating in it!! Yes they are! You don’t have to commit a crime in OK to have your life taken by a corrupt and abusive criminal justice system in OK!!! All you have to do is be in the wrong place, or be accused. Here, you aren’t innocent until proven guilty, you are a pawn in a corrupt system unless you have tons of money. Shame on OK! How do you people sleep at night???

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