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Oklahoma DA’s are historically opponents of criminal justice reform

In Friday's Oklahoman (bit.ly/BHermanson), the new President of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, Brian Hermanson, DA for Kay and Noble Counties, made the case that District Attorneys do not have to be the enemy of criminal justice reform. I agree. 

Prosecutors across the nation are showing that by example, from Kim Foxx in Chicago to Larry Krasner in Philadelphia to Wesley Bell in St. Louis County, criminal justice reform advocates are using the power of prosecutors’ offices to enact policies that reduce the rate of incarceration and address racial disparities in our criminal justice system. They are trying to rewire how Assistant District Attorneys charge and sentence in an effort to enact meaningful change. They are reviewing sentences and cases from their office and looking at post-sentence modification, commutation, and clemency. 

But that is not the case for the people of Oklahoma, a state that now leads the nation and world in the rate of incarceration of people, in the rate of incarceration of women, and the rate of incarceration of black people. In the face of those disturbing statistics, the District Attorneys Association in Oklahoma has worked to protect the status quo. 

Oklahoma voters have demanded change at the ballot box, only to see DAs fight back. The ACLU of Oklahoma has done extensive polling of likely voters, and they still note their preference for candidates who support meaningful criminal justice reform, but most Oklahomans don't get that choice when comes to their district attorney. 

Less than a third of district attorneys faced any opponent this election year.  DAs seem to take the lack of competition at the ballot as an endorsement, but the lack of candidates is better explained by the small pool of eligible candidates, fear of retribution against a candidate’s clients by the incumbent, and the failure to fully appreciate their power and opportunities that comes with being a DA. 

Their power makes DAs the biggest players in our criminal justice system. The Oklahoma District Attorneys Association sent their lobbyist and their members to the legislature to try and undo the popularly passed public reforms in State Questions 780 and 781. This last session, District Attorneys held backroom meetings and worked to water down the suggestions of the Governor's Task Force, all while encouraging the public to celebrate weak responses to one of the most-pressing crises facing our state. 

District Attorneys often hide behind the argument of public safety. This isn't about public safety--states all around us are just as safe if not safer, and incarcerate much less of their per capita population. DAs are not the enemies of criminal justice reform, but in Oklahoma, they are the obstructionists of it. If they sincerely want to help, they will limit their use of money bail and pre-trial incarceration, they’ll begin reviewing and creating options for release for people who were convicted for pre-780 crimes that would now be misdemeanors, and they will fight for more funding in the legislature rather than depending on fines and fees they heal on cash-strapped Oklahomans to help fund their offices. Maybe then Oklahoma’s DAs will join the growing number of their counterparts around the nation in not being enemies of criminal justice reform.