Harsh sentences aren’t always required to achieve justice (Capitol Update)

Last week, it was reported that a 55-year old tag agent in southeastern Oklahoma pleaded guilty in Oklahoma County District Court to embezzling $629,000 in tax receipts. She received the money but failed to forward it to the Oklahoma Tax Commission. The theft, which occurred beginning in 2015, was discovered by a state audit. The tag agent was allowed to repay the embezzled tax money, and she received a two-year deferred sentence. $322,801 had been repaid earlier, and the final payment of $306,295 was made last Thursday, the same day the case was filed and the deferred sentence was granted. The penalty for embezzlement of more than $15,000 is imprisonment not to exceed eight years. The deferred sentence means after two years of successful probation, she will not have a felony conviction on her record.

An argument could be made that this defendant was treated very favorably. It is obvious from the facts that she abused her position of trust, stole more than half a million dollars in taxpayer money, and didn’t return it until she was caught through a state audit. When caught, charges were held up giving her the opportunity to return the money before charges were filed. In embezzlement cases, there is a statute providing if the money is returned before charges are filed it will be considered a mitigating circumstance.

This case, and the way it was handled, demonstrates the power of prosecutors in the criminal justice system. Perhaps the system worked well in this case. The woman was said to have some health problems. Perhaps justice would not have been served by sending this woman to prison or by saddling her with a felony conviction. Frankly, I have no quarrel with the prosecutor’s decision. But prisons in Oklahoma are filled with women who likely committed lesser nonviolent property crimes than hers and who received no such leniency. They were likely neither prominent nor well connected enough to get an appointment as a tag agent for the tax commission.

The point here is that, in Oklahoma, prosecutors get to make these God-like decisions in people’s lives day in and day out. The fact we have long been the number one incarcerator of women, and now have the second highest overall incarceration rate following recent reforms, demonstrates that Oklahoma prosecutors seem to rarely use their power for leniency when compared with other states. The other point is that prosecutors guard this power jealously. Any effort that might impinge on their discretion is met with opposition. This case proves that — when they want to — prosecutors will agree that a harsh sentence is not always necessary to achieve justice. The goal of criminal justice reform is to get them to want to more often.


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.

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