September 2, 2014

In Blunt Terms, District Attorneys Speak to Money Crunch

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Notebook Image1THE WATCH

A compilation of news, context and little-known facts related to Oklahoma.


SEPTEMBER 2014

‘Staggering’ Caseloads for Prosecutors
(Sept. 18)

Oklahoma district attorneys are speaking in frustration over what they say is a severe underfunding of their offices in the face of “staggering” caseloads.

At its Thursday meeting, the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council unveiled a draft   proposal to seek a significant increase in appropriations from the Legislature. The council also handed out the draft of a fact sheet with dramatic figures and statements.

“Caseloads of prosecutors are staggering, leaving insufficient time for legal review, meeting with victims and case preparation,” the fact sheet said.

As an emotional point of emphasis, the sheet added, “If your daughter is raped, wouldn’t you want the best attorney in that courtroom?”

About half of the nearly $40 million in funding for district attorneys’ offices is paid through state appropriations. The rest comes from DA programs and fees, such as probation fees charged to offenders and civil asset forfeiture funds. The draft budget proposal for fiscal 2015 would raise state funding for prosecutors’ offices from 0.5 percent to 1 percent of total state appropriations, to $71 million.

District attorneys say they’re facing a budget crunch because caseloads are getting larger; salaries for prosecutors are not keeping pace with the market, making recruiting difficult, and their offices must deal with too many unfunded legislatively-mandated justice programs, such as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

“The pressure point is, you’re not spending time prosecuting, you’re spending time raising money,” Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris said at the council meeting.

The fact sheet states, “There are 273 assistant prosecutors in the state. In 2013, there were 92,042 felony and misdemeanor cases filed. This averages 337 cases per lawyer. And these numbers don’t consider the other caseload and duties of those prosecutors.”

–Clifton Adcock


Sex Crimes and Law Officers
(Sept. 16)

Recent arrests of law enforcement officers on sexual assault complaints point to the findings of an earlier Oklahoma Watch investigation: Sex offenses are the most common reason officers lose their certifications.

On Monday, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer was arrested after two women alleged he raped or groped them during traffic stops in the Sapulpa area. Last month, an Oklahoma City police officer was arrested and accused of raping several women while on patrol in the northeast part of the city.

In October last year, based on an analysis of three years of data, Oklahoma Watch reported that more than a fourth of peace officers who were disciplined by the state’s certification agency or surrendered their certifications were convicted of or pleaded guilty to sex crimes.


Rape Report Surge Reflects New Definition, Other Factors
(Sept. 15)

While recently released crime statistics from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation show a large spike in the number of reported rapes over the last two years, the actual increase might not be as dramatic, according to police.

The number of rape cases reported to police between 2011 and 2013 rose 21 percent, according to the OSBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Report, which tracks several types of crime statistics across the state. All other forms of violent crime fell during that period.

The Crime Report data further showed that between 2011 and 2013, the number of reported rapes in Oklahoma City spiked dramatically – increasing by 61 percent – while Tulsa recorded a 40 percent increase during that time.

However, the reported spikes may be attributable in part to increased involvement by advocacy groups and health professionals, less social stigma attached to reporting sexual assaults and changes in the way the FBI collects its data, police said.

“Part of it, we simply can’t answer. Part of it, we would like to think is because of better reporting,” said Sgt. Mark Mears, who oversees the Tulsa Police Department’s Sex Crimes unit.

Rape and sexual assaults often are not reported by the victims. The cases that do get reported often are difficult to investigate and prosecute, because victims sometimes fail to report the crimes immediately after they occurred or decide to forgo the difficult task of testifying about them in court, said Capt. Dexter Nelson, public information officer for the Oklahoma City Police Department.

“Victims sometimes put the blame on themselves, since most (perpetrators) are acquaintances, somebody they know,” Nelson said. “They think, ‘Nobody’s going to believe me.’”

One factor that may make it easier for individuals to report sexual assaults is a law that went into effect 2009 that allowed sexual assault reports to be made by health care workers from hospitals, Nelson said.

Under the law, health care professionals treating a sexual assault victims are required to report the case to police only if the victim requests it. If the victim is less than 18 years old or is an incapacitated adult, attending health care workers are required to report the case to police regardless of whether the victim requests it.

Another factor behind the dramatic increases could involve how the data has been collected, Mears said.

Beginning in 2012, the FBI announced it was expanding its definition of rape in regard to the statistics it collected from state law enforcement agencies such as the OSBI.

While one system of reporting the numbers used by several states already collected data under an expanded definition of rape, Oklahoma was not one of the states using that system, according to the FBI.

The FBI had for years asked that law enforcement agencies send it statistics that fit the agency’s definition of rape: “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

In 2012, the FBI announced it was expanding that definition.

“Prior to that, it had a very, very limited definition of rape that hadn’t been updated since sometime around 1928,” Mears said.

The FBI’s current definition expands its definition of victims to include men and individuals with a temporary or permanent mental, physical or age-related incapacity. The new definition also includes cases involving non-consensual oral or anal intercourse, or rape by instrumentation.

Though the old definition precluded many cases from being reported to the FBI as rape, many state legislatures and law enforcement agencies already had expanded their definition of rape over the years and had begun investigating and prosecuting crimes falling outside the FBI data-collection definition, Mears said.

It was just in reporting the statistics to the FBI that the old definition was used, which could have made it appear as if fewer rapes were being reported to law enforcement than actually was the case, he said.

Tulsa Police did not see the spike shown in the Uniform Crime Report Data reflected in the actual number of sexual assault reports it records, Mears said.

“The numbers have basically been consistent,” Mears said.

While the data collection methods might have had an effect on the last few years’ numbers, for at least a decade there has been a larger movement among advocacy group to empower and help sexual assault victims, in part by making it easier to report the crimes committed against them, Mears said.

“There’s a lot more advocacy in reporting,” Mears said. “We want to see that.”

–Clifton Adcock


Unfettered Gifts
(Sept. 3)

So far this election cycle, five Oklahomans have exceeded the political donation caps that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, according to a report from the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.

The center collected data that shows 310 donors nationally have given more than the total $123,200 that used to be the maximum for an individual’s total donations to candidates, political action committees or political parties. The Supreme Court struck down the cap in April in a ruling known as McCutcheon v. FEC.

The 310 donors favored Republicans over Democrats by a ratio of 2 to 1. All but one of the five Oklahomans on the list gave exclusively to Republicans. Those donors:

Thomas Russell, of Tulsa, founder of  Thomas Russell Co., an oil and gas processing firm. He is No. 157 on the donor list, giving $146,670 so far to Republicans.

Tulsa billionaire Joseph W. Craft III, president of Alliance Resource Partners, an coal production and marketing company. He is No. 218 on the list, with gifts totaling $136,100 to Republican candidates and causes.

Francis Rooney III, of Tulsa, CEO of Rooney Holdings and Manhattan Construction Group. He is No. 256, with $130,900 given to Republicans this election cycle.

George W. Krumme, of Tulsa, founder of Krumme Oil Co. He is No. 260 and has given $130,650 to Democratic candidates and causes.

Larry Nichols, of Oklahoma City, co-founder of Devon Energy. He is No. 264, having donated $129,900 to Republicans.

–Clifton Adcock


Kids and Uzis
(Sept. 2)

When a 9-year-old girl accidentally killed an Arizona firing-range instructor with an Uzi last week, many commentators wondered why the range operator allowed children 8 and older to handle such weapons.

In Oklahoma, at the annual Full Auto Shoot and Trade Show in Wyandotte, the age restrictions are even looser: there are none. (See News21 video.)

Terra Burke, an assistant for Firing Line, a gun manufacturing firm that hosts the event, said a person of any age can shoot any weapon, although a minor must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The last Full Auto Shoot was held June 21-22.

Firing Line rents out spaces to dealers along the shooting line, and the dealers handle the shooters. The event features machine guns, submachine guns such as Uzis, and, this year, a howitzer. “The dealers won’t let them (children) shoot anything they can’t handle,” Burke said, adding she has seen children as young as 5 come out to shoot and enjoy themselves. So far, Burke said no dealers have informed her that they plan to change their policies regarding age for next year’s event.

–Lindsay Whelchel