Asking District Attorneys to fund themselves with fees, forfeitures creates systemic problems (Capitol Updates)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Photo by Jake Slagle / CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo by Jake Slagle / CC BY-NC 2.0

There’s an eCapitol story accompanying this week’s update about the funding crisis in our District Attorney system.  I’ve also heard the new Tulsa County DA, Steve Kunzweiler, express his frustrations at the funding problems his office faces.  This is not untypical of many other state agencies, but the prosecutors can make a good case that their role in public safety is basic and ought to be agreed upon as a fundamental, or core, function of government.  But here’s the problem:  Most people, including legislators agree that DAs are a core function of government, but we still refuse to fund them.  They received a 2% cut in this year’s budget.

The biggest immediate challenge the DAs face is not their cut in appropriations but the dwindling of their earned sources of revenue.  I was actually the author of the DAs’ bogus check restitution program in 1981.  At the time, it was intended not as a source of revenue but as a service primarily to the merchants in the community who received the lion’s share of bad checks.  The merchants were way more interested in getting their money back than sending a bad check writer to jail or prison.  And DAs could still prosecute and convict serial bogus check writers if it was warranted.  I never dreamed the bogus check program would turn into a major funding stream for DAs’ offices, but through the years it did. Now that checks are less often used the funding has been drastically reduced.

DAs are also now expected to generate funding for various parts of their operations through probation fees and civil forfeiture of assets.  As the DAs are beginning to point out, this is bad public policy.  Making decisions on whether to file a charge, require probation or forfeit property should not be intermingled with whether the DA can keep his office running.  You don’t have to be a professional ethicist to figure out there’s something wrong with this picture.  Although DAs likely don’t make individual decisions based on their funding consequences, the problem becomes systemic. Programs are set up to produce funding and cases get handled the way the system tells them to be handled, often without adequate individual attention. DAs know this and many don’t feel good about it.     

Underfunded District Attorneys and low salaries are causing an estimated 70 percent turnover rate in Assistant District Attorneys.  ADAs are at the center of our criminal justice system.  They make charging decisions, plea bargains and try cases on behalf of the people and crime victims.  A 70 percent turnover rate doesn’t allow for the seasoning necessary to produce the kind of decision making and results both the public and people caught up in the system need.  The current president of the DA Council believes DA operations should be fully appropriated by the Legislature.  He’s right.  Until that happens, maybe a step in the right direction would be to consolidate the funds generated by DA operations in a statewide revolving fund to be distributed to the various offices according to a formula.  At least that way there would be some space between the decisions made in a District Attorney’s office and a direct benefit to the office.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

2 thoughts on “Asking District Attorneys to fund themselves with fees, forfeitures creates systemic problems (Capitol Updates)

  1. . . . . orrrrrr.

    Perhaps keeping DAs underfunded is the most direct way to cut back on the cases being processed through the system that don’t have to be or should be processed in other ways. Do we really think a “fully-funded” prosecutor’s office in OK will be interested in alternative sentencing or pleading to probation rather than prisons? Since research shows that DAs have been the principal drivers of the nation’s and OK’s overincarceration, maybe the legislature has figured out, despite itself, an easy way to “reform” the system without bringing on the inevitable backlash led by DAs when the legislature tries to do something meaningful. (And that “leading the backlash” and its own backlash with policymakers is something that should be addressed in any discussion of why the current situation is as it is.)

  2. When in the world will the Governor and the legislative leaders begin to seriously address some really fundamental problems in our state, like the one articulated above, and provide proper funding for people to do their jobs, rather than undertake publicity stunts like cutting taxes which would provide, at best, less than $40.00 per year per individual. The basic problems of fundamental issues in the state of Oklahoma are overwhelming by any measure you choose to use, e.g., education, roads and bridges, high levels of incarceration for non-violent crimes at two to three times the cost of funding one year of post-secondary education for an individual or fund treatment for three or four people with addiction/mental problems, on and on the list goes. It is not only embarrassing but extremely poor business.

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