The Norman Transcript

Columns

May 2, 2013

Legislature needs to take steps in criminal justice

NORMAN — Most prosecutors and public defenders are sincere in their desire to dispense equal justice. Both sides are vastly overworked in many Oklahoma counties.

These public servants are not the rich lawyers of myth. Pay for both sides is too low and the hours are too long. Even the judge is often overworked. All are sincerely working to give individual and proportionate attention to the details of every person’s case.

At least 98 percent of all criminal cases are settled by a plea bargain. Because of system overload, neither side can always investigate every case with the depth that case deserves. Burnout and turnover of attorneys on both sides can be high in larger counties.

There are simply not enough time or resources to ensure thorough attention to every single criminal case.

Drug abusers and mentally ill citizens are crowding our prisons and jails because of insufficient resources for treatment. Oklahoma locks up not just the people we have every reason to fear but also the people who could be served by drug treatment, mental health treatment and vocational services.

The overall cost to taxpayers over time is much higher — some say seven times higher — for prison than for treatment supervised by diversion courts like drug courts, DUI courts, Veterans’ Courts and domestic abuse courts. But that money has to be made available over a shorter period of time.

In the meantime, we are turning youthful offenders and salvageable citizens into hardened criminals and treating helpless addicts and mentally ill citizens the same as we treat murderers and rapists. That cannot constitute equal justice, despite the best intentions of those attorneys sworn to judge, prosecute and defend with diligence and integrity.

It is time for the Legislature to take statesmanlike steps and for citizens to demand a more sensible approach to criminal justice.

Jim Drummond is a Norman attorney. This article is one of four provided by the Cleveland County Bar Association as part of Law Day activities.

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