Criminal justice reform, low salaries for prosecutors and how to fund the district attorneys’ offices were some of the topics discussed by prosecutors and lawmakers at a breakfast held Friday at a downtown Tulsa hotel.
Six area district attorneys used the two-hour event to bend the ears of about 22 state lawmakers who attended what was being billed as the first-ever district attorneys legislative breakfast.
The event was hosted by area district attorneys and the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Foundation.
District attorneys covered a wide range of issues during the meeting, including the cautioning of lawmakers on recent calls to make criminal justice reform sentencing measures retroactive. They also painted a stark picture of how funding issues affect their offices.
On the latter topic, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler commented on his reliance on court fees to fund about half of his office’s $8.3 million annual budget.
“I think it’s immoral to require a district attorney to be a fee collector to keep my doors open,” Kunzweiler said. “The fact that I have to collect a fee from somebody I’m prosecuting and putting on probation, I shouldn’t have to be put in that spot. My job should be public safety and applying facts to law.”
Kunzweiler said lawsuits are pending in the state that challenge the current system of funding the state judiciary.
The state would face a “fairly significant financial crisis” if the courts rule against the current state system that ties fees, costs and assessments to funding the court system, Kunzweiler said.
“That’s an area that is under close scrutiny and I think obviously it should be,” Kunzweiler said.
District 11 District Attorney Kevin Buchanan, who represents Nowata and Washington counties, warned of a “ripple effect” to prosecutor offices regarding a push to make recent criminal justice reform retroactive.
Voters in November 2016 approved state questions 780 and 781. The measures dealt in part with reclassifying felony drug possession crimes and low-level property crimes as misdemeanors.
Criminal justice reform proponents are calling for extending the law to inmates convicted prior to the passage of the state questions.
If passed, Buchanan said prosecutors would be tasked with having to try to sort out the value of property involved in a crime to determine whether it was a misdemeanor or a felony under the new law.
“That can be incredibly complicated,” Buchanan said
Buchanan said he was hopeful a legislative committee that is reviewing the entire criminal code will address the fallout from 780.
Extending State Question 780 to retroactively affect sentences would cause inmates to request resentencing hearings, he said.
“Do we go back and have thousands of resentencing hearings all over our 77 counties to determine what the proper sentence should be now?” Buchanan said. “I don’t think we could even imagine what it’s going to mean to the justice system.”
Rather than applying the law retroactively, district attorneys pushed the idea of an “expedited commutation process” where inmates could petition the Pardon and Parole Board for a commuted prison term.
The DAs also complained about high turnover due to low salaries.
District 10 District Attorney Mike Fisher said low salaries for assistant prosecutors was a “real public safety issue.”
When he was acting district attorney about six years ago, Fisher said he had prosecutors who were four months out of law school prosecuting armed robbery cases.
“This becomes a public safety issue,” Fisher said. “It’s more than just money folks.”
After the session, Rep. Lonnie Sims, R-Jenks, was receptive to the issues facing district attorneys.
“These are very good ideas that I think we do already have a lot of consensus built around them already,” Sims said.
“There’s obviously going to be a big emphasis on criminal justice reform just because of the fact that we are No. 1 (in incarceration rate),” Sims said. ”That’s definitely not the title you want to have is No. 1 for that.”
Rep. Ty Burns, R-Morrison, echoed the concerns regarding making State Question 780 reforms retroactive.
“As a former law enforcement officer, I can tell you the district attorneys are not sending people to prison for a first-time drug offense,” Burns said. “That’s not something that they do, so making that a misdemeanor and retroactive creates a problem because they are talking about career criminals.”