District attorneys across the state are scrambling to pay their office bills by relying on a supervision program that critics say presents a conflict of interest, lacks accountability and hasn’t demonstrated an improved level public safety.
Under the District Attorney Supervision Program, about 38,000 offenders each pay an average of $40 a month on top of court costs. In fiscal year 2012, district attorneys are expected to generate about $14 million in revenue – almost 20 percent of their budget – by supervising an estimated 27,600 people on misdemeanor cases and about 10,500 on felony cases.
“Philosophically, I don’t believe that an entity that is prosecuting the individual should be supervising the individual,” Bob Ravitz, Oklahoma County public defender, said. “When you have the district attorney supervising, they’re the ones who decide to file charges or not. They have a vested financial interest if that person is convicted or not and put on probation.”
Prosecutors don’t disagree that the program has flaws, but they say they need it to keep their offices afloat because of budget cuts and a drop in revenue from the bogus check fund. In the past three years, the state has cut funding to prosecutors by about 24 percent.
Before it was put in place, the Department of Corrections administered most supervision programs. Probation intakes are down about 50 percent since district attorneys expanded their supervision programs to include felonies.
Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris said he was reluctant to use the district attorney supervision program and told lawmakers at the time it created a Catch 22 of a conflict of interest.
“They said other DAs in the state are doing this, if you don’t get on board and use the tool we’ve given you, quit crying about your budget woes,” Harris said.
Trent Baggett, assistant executive director of the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council, agreed that the program creates an appearance of a conflict of interest and said it’s important for district attorneys to make sure they are handling things in an even-handed way.
“Would it be a whole lot better system if we were funded entirely by one entity where we didn’t have to rely on these additional funds?” Baggett said. “Absolutely. Absolutely, it would be great if we could do that, but you know what? That’s the hand we’re dealt.”
The District Attorneys Council will meet Thursday to discuss and possibly adopt guidelines or standards for the program.
While the program may make financial sense, there is little research to show that it is effective in reducing crime and increasing public safety in Oklahoma.
Since June, a bipartisan group of Oklahoma lawmakers, criminal justice leaders and data analysts has met to research how the state can better use its resources to enhance public safety. It is expected to release policy recommendations sometime in January.
The data shows district attorney supervision is replacing regular probation as the most common form of supervision for felons in Oklahoma County, according to an analysis by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. From 2008 to 2011, in Oklahoma County, district attorney supervision increased 800 percent while the Department of Corrections probation decreased 70 percent.
And district attorney supervision in Oklahoma County appears to be reducing some of the population going to jail or prison. More felons in Oklahoma County are now sentenced to district attorney supervision than to prison, according to the analysis.
David Prater, Oklahoma County district attorney, did not return multiple calls asking for comment.
The Legislature created the district attorney supervision program in 2005 as an alternative to Department of Corrections supervision. If a judge gives someone a deferred or suspended sentence but doesn’t order them to Department of Corrections supervision, then, according to law, the person “shall be required to pay the district attorney a monthly supervision fee” of $40.
“We are very protective of our DA supervision fees, and I really don’t want it [the program] to be a sham, because if for whatever reason the legislature were to take this tool away from me, I don’t really know how I would operate,” Harris said.
District attorneys say they are primarily supervising misdemeanor offenses, which no one supervised before, and low-level felonies. During the 2011 fiscal year, district attorneys supervised an estimated 27,600 people on misdemeanor cases and about 10,500 on felony cases.
But these numbers are only estimates. When the Legislature created the program, it did not require district attorneys to report anything about the program, such as how many people were in the program, what types of offenders they were supervising, how they would spend the revenue generated by the program or what tactics they were using to supervise.
It didn’t actually do anything other than create the program via two sentences in a state statute. Nowhere in the statute is “supervision” defined.
This leaves the possibility open that a district attorney could simply take $40 a month from someone and not provide any services to that person.
“I hear that tired argument over and over and over again,” Baggett said. “Now do I personally know what all 27 elected district attorneys are doing in their probation services in all 77 counties? No, but at the same time, I would want to see who that person is and where that is happening before I would put a lot of stock in that.”
Comanche County District Attorney Fred Smith said he uses several tools to help the people he and his staff supervise in their program.
Smith’s supervision program uses bracelets that detect alcohol use. He uses patches that are worn like a nicotine patch but used to detect drug use. He uses GPS monitors that, for example, can tell whether someone with a gambling addiction is entering a casino.
The district attorney supervision program can serve as a means of prevention — get someone help early on before it’s their third or fourth offense, Smith said.
Additionally, it means that someone is checking to see whether people finish drug treatment or paying their fines, Smith said.
“I cannot imagine the amount of money that defendants have failed to pay over the last 50 years, but I would guess it’s in the millions in unpaid fines, costs and assessments,” Smith said.
Allen Smallwood, a Tulsa attorney and past president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, is more skeptical that some district attorneys are doing more than collecting a fee.
“I’ve never had any of my clients tell me there was any degree of supervision other than taking their checks,” Smallwood said.
Without any standardization or consistency and evaluation, criminal justice senior policy analyst Robert Coombs said it’s virtually impossible to know whether the program is achieving a certain set of standards.
“It just makes it that much harder to know that everyone is on the same page, that everyone is doing things the same way, that you’re maintaining a consistent amount of quality across the board,” he said.