When Oklahoma prosecutors back a criminal justice bill, chances are it will become law.
Oklahoma district attorneys lobbied for or against 47 bills from 2015 to 2018, according to a study published June 3 by the University of North Carolina School of Law’s Prosecutor and Politics Project. The state’s 27 prosecutors were most likely to support bills that proposed expanding criminal law or increasing punishments for certain offenses, but did lobby for nine more lenient bills, researchers noted.
For example, district attorneys opposed a 2017 bill that would have reduced some larceny and forgery crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. While the measure passed through the House and Senate with widespread support, it stalled in a conference committee and was never forwarded to the governor’s desk for final approval.
In 2018, district attorneys worked with former Gov. Mary Fallin and lawmakers to craft three criminal justice reform bills, including a measure that prohibited judges from using a person’s prior felony drug possession conviction to enhance a subsequent sentence. All three bills — S.B. 64, S.B. 689 and H.B. 2286 — were signed into law.
State lawmakers passed 59.4% percent of prosecutor-backed bills and struck down every measure they opposed during the four-year study period. Overall, 22% of criminal justice bills introduced in the legislature from 2015 to 2018 were enacted.
Oklahoma prosecutors meet in two closely related but separate groups, the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council and the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Association. The Council functions as a state agency that provides advisory and administrative support. The Association, which budgeted $48,000 in F.Y. 2020 to lobby the Legislature, operates as a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Carissa Byrne Hessick, director and lead researcher for the Prosecutor and Politics Project, said prosecutors should have a voice in the legislative process because they’re bound by state law. But in most states, Hessick said district attorneys haven’t been transparent about their lobbying efforts and the public is unaware of their political activity.
“If there’s going to be someone out there who’s making really consequential decisions, and the check on their power is elections, it’s important for voters to have access to information that lets us know how that power is being used,” Hessick said. “And for the most part that’s incredibly difficult to find.”
Researchers used media reports and records from legislative hearings to determine whether prosecutors were lobbying a bill. What was most difficult to quantify was lobbying that happens behind closed doors, Hessick said.
“If you asked me to put money on it, I’d say there’s a lot more lobbying going on than we were able to identify,” she said. “But we were still able to identify quite a lot.”
Prosecutors nationwide were involved in 25% of criminal justice bills introduced in state legislatures. They were more likely to support tough-on-crime policies, but their lobbying efforts were most successful when supporting criminal justice reform bills.
Oklahoma was one of four states, the others Arizona, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, where no prosecutor-opposed bill passed through the legislature throughout the study period.
While Oklahoma prosecutors have successfully lobbied against bills in the legislature, the state’s voters have shown a willingness to enact ballot initiatives that most district attorneys disapprove of.
Several prosecutors, including Tulsa County D.A. Steve Kunzweiler and Cleveland County D.A. Greg Mashburn, opposed State Question 780 in 2016, arguing that it would lead to higher crime rates and allow drug use to run rampant. Nearly three-fifths of Oklahoma voters approved the measure, which reclassified several drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
The Oklahoma District Attorney’s Association aggressively lobbied against State Question 805, a 2020 ballot initiative that would have stopped courts from imposing repeat sentence enhancements on certain nonviolent offenders. A wide swath of urban and rural voters rejected the ballot initiative in November.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss