NORMAN — District attorneys headed to the state Capitol two days last week to inform lawmakers that they are running out of money to prosecute serious criminals like murderers and rapists.
“District attorneys now begin each day worrying not about the murder case their office will try, but about how they will fund a prosecutor to handle it,” said Suzanne McClain Atwood, executive director of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association.
The DAfs think it will only get worse next fiscal year unless the Legislature comes up with more money.
Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said the problem accelerated when “there was a judge choosing to send offenders to a private service,” rather than to the DA’s office.
This means that the district attorneys are losing a $40-a-month payment from defendants, he said, which comprises at least 20 percent of his budget.
Meanwhile, Special Judge Steve Stice has told the state court of criminal appeals that he assigns some cases to a private vendor because the DA’s office cannot provide the services offenders need to complete their terms of probation.
The appeals court sided with Judge Stice, stating that the judiciary needs to be able to assign an offender to be supervised by either the DA or a private service — whichever is more appropriate.
Meanwhile, Cleveland County judges are alarmed that the Legislature might halt private supervision entities from treating any defendants subject to the $40-a-month fee.
State Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, has filed Senate Bill 1038 that would eliminate private services groups from supervising offenders on probation. Sykes is judiciary chairman in the Senate.
Mashburn told The Transcript that it is not his wish that private supervision services to be blocked from getting cases.
“I will talk to Senator Sykes about that and see if we can get that changed,” said Mashburn, current president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association.
Atwood said another proposal would replace the language in current law to state that the $40 fee would be considered a “prosecution fee,” rather than a supervision fee, so the DA’s could get it, regardless of what services they provide.
“Your district attorneys are in a crisis situation that is the worst these DA’s have ever seen,” said Atwood, who lobbies the Legislature for DA’s.
The district attorneys are seeking an overall $7 million boost in appropriations to the 27 district attorneys’ offices in the state.
A big reduction in “bounced check” cases, which generated high fees, has caused the DA’s to rely even more on the $40-a-month supervision fee. “That $40 supervision fee is what has saved the DA’s,” Atwood said.
House Judiciary Committee Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, asked Mashburn why the district attorneys are not appealing the criminal appeals court’s decision to the state Supreme Court.
Judge Stice and others have stated that rulings by the Court of Criminal Appeals cannot be appealed to a higher court.
The law states that decisions in criminal cases cannot be appealed to a higher court. But it is not clear whether this question could be heard since it does not constitute an appeal in a specific criminal case.
Stice commented recently that the DA’s reliance on misdemeanor cases to generate fees for other prosecutions has been “the elephant in the room.” But he said the criminal appeals court has already addressed that question, and their ruling stands.
McCullough told the district attorneys that at this point, the lawmakers are only listening. Actual legislation will be considered during the upcoming session beginning the first week in February.
Rex Duncan, district attorney from Pawhuska, said that currently, his office is short two lawyers, two secretaries and an investigator.
“I cannot do anything to generate revenue,” he said.
Duncan, a Republican, served several years in the state House of Representatives.
“I wish I had known then what I know now,” he said.