- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - A 66-year-old Oklahoma inmate serving life in prison for possessing an ounce of cocaine was denied parole Tuesday, months after the governor modified his sentence in a way that allowed early release to be an option.

The state’s Pardon and Parole Board voted 5-0 to deny parole to Larry Yarbrough, who’s been imprisoned since 1997. The reasons for the denial weren’t immediately given, and a parole board official couldn’t be reached for comment.

Attorneys for Yarbrough had argued that he was in poor health, suffering from congestive heart failure and diabetes, and needed a wheelchair to move around. Prosecutors who opposed Yarbrough’s parole argued that he was a five-time felon who had prior drug-related convictions.

Gov. Mary Fallin commuted Yarbrough’s sentence in March, converting it to life with the possibility of parole. That gave hope to justice reform groups that the cases for about four dozen other Oklahoma inmates serving similar sentences for nonviolent drug-related crimes could be re-evaluated.

“The truth is, this should’ve begun the first real step to justice reform in Oklahoma, and all it did was reaffirm that there is no justice reform in Oklahoma,” said Mark Faulk, a filmmaker and supporter of Yarbrough’s case.

Yarbrough’s commutation was among just three that the governor had issued since 2012, and Fallin told The Associated Press 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.”

A spokesman for Fallin declined to comment on the decision Tuesday.

Oklahoma, which has 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 nonviolent offenders.

Last year, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he conducted in-depth interviews with inmates in Oklahoma. He heard from six inmates at the Federal Correctional Institute at El Reno about how their lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug offenses were affecting their families and communities.

In the case of Yarbrough, his lawyer isn’t hopeful about his chances of getting released when he goes back before the board in the future.

“It doesn’t matter you’ve done 22 years without a single write-up. None of that matters,” attorney Debra Hampton said.

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