DA's Office pulling out of case-expediting program
BY BILL BRAUN World Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009
11/29/09 at 4:19 AM
A procedure designed to expedite criminal cases of nonviolent offenders through the Tulsa County court system is coming to a halt, following District Attorney Tim Harris' announcement that he is pulling out of the program.
Citing budget concerns, Harris notified court officials that effective in January, the assistant district attorney who has handled the Accelerated Accountability Procedure docket will focus on duties on other dockets.
Proponents of the accelerated accountability program are concerned that this will affect the county's Community Sentencing program, which attempts to rehabilitate offenders on probation with the assistance of supervision, sanctions, treatment and education.
"We are not abandoning community sentencing," First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond said.
"As a prosecutor, you have to acknowledge that therapeutic courts are here to stay," he said. "For those people who really want help, it can make a difference.
"The bigger issue is the funding crisis in the criminal justice system," he said. "We are not sure what the future holds for our budget."
The accelerated accountability docket is only called on Wednesday.
District Judge Jefferson Sellers said the docket was set up years ago to make an early identification of nonviolent offenders and to "identify those cases likely to be disposed of by probation."
With public safety a consideration, the intent was to allow people who were "probably going to be released eventually" to get an expedited release in order to keep jail costs down and to help arrested people preserve their jobs, Sellers said.
A quick screening capability has been "a great asset," he said.
Presiding District Judge Tom Thornbrugh said, "You could identify low-risk, low-need offenders and divert them at the intake level to an accelerated docket," where defendants would agree to plead guilty and require few court appearances.
What was supposed to be a "rocket docket," Drummond said, effectively turned into a community sentencing court — requiring more time and hearings — and cases were assigned to the accelerated accountability docket from district judges who handle felony trials and caseloads.
Sellers agreed that there had been "some movement away from the original concept."
Special Judge Cliff Smith, who handles the docket, said ending it "should have little or no impact on the Community Sentencing program."
He estimated that 800 to 900 defendants are involved in the accelerated accountability program.
That program can't proceed without participation by Harris's office, and the cases are being reassigned to the felony dockets of five district judges who will take on greater duties involving community sentencing.
Chief Public Defender Pete Silva is concerned about the move by the district attorney to withdraw from the docket and its impact on community sentencing.
In addition to increasing the caseloads of five district judges, this action will increase the jail population and therefore jail costs, Silva indicated.
He thinks the impact on how cases are resolved will also increase the number of nonviolent offenders sent to prison from Tulsa County.
People put on probation will be subject to having it revoked because they were not afforded the supportive programs — available only through community sentencing — that are designed to help them become law-abiding citizens, he said.
Another defense attorney, Keith McArtor, thinks the availability of diversion programs is crucial in reducing the rate of repeat offenses, he said.
There are cases where "good people just make mistakes," McArtor said.
Drummond said the budget for the DA's office for the current fiscal year has been reduced by $588,832, with more cuts possible.
Harris wrote in a letter stating that he would not continue to staff the accelerated accountability court that his office has had to "prioritize our prosecutors," and "we have to start tightening our financial belt in anticipation of a difficult road ahead.
"It is our experience that the district judges are better suited to handle" community sentencing cases, he wrote.
Drummond said the priority of the DA's Office would remain "public safety and the prosecution of violent crimes and violent criminals."
Bill Braun 581-8455
District Attorney Tim Harris (left) and First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond: The action comes as the DA's office is facing a reduction of $588,832 in its current fiscal year budget, Drummond said. Harris wrote a letter explaining the halt of the accelerated accountability court, stating that his office has had to "prioritize our prosecutors" and "we have to start tightening our financial belt in anticipation of a difficult road ahead."