The vast majority of Oklahoma’s district attorneys are resting easy this election cycle.
Twenty-three of 27 district attorney races have already been decided without a single vote. Incumbents, three of whom were appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt within the past year, secured re-election in 22 of the 23 uncontested races.
Competitive races will appear on the ballot in Delaware, Lincoln Muskogee, Oklahoma, Ottawa and Pottawatomie counties. Approximately 26% of the state’s population lives in these six counties. (As a reminder, district attorneys in Oklahoma oversee criminal prosecution in up to five counties, with rural counties more likely to be grouped together.)
Incumbent district attorneys cruising to victory is nothing new. But data suggest contested district attorney races are becoming increasingly rare in Oklahoma.
In 2014, one-third of Oklahoma district attorney races were contested, according to election results compiled by the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina School of Law. In one race that year, challenger Orvil Loge defeated incumbent Larry Moore to become Muskogee County District Attorney.
The Prosecutor and Politics Project’s report doesn’t attempt to answer why many races are uncontested or if the problem has worsened. It does note that urban district attorneys are more likely to face competition than rural ones.
One likely factor: Most lawyers live in urban areas, and rural attorneys are often drawn to higher-paying positions in urban centers and surrounding states. Matt Ballard, District Attorney for District 12 in Northeast Oklahoma, wrote in a recent op-ed that a common annual starting salary for an assistant prosecutor is just $45,000.
Another possible factor I’ll be investigating in the coming weeks: Data on district attorney charging practices and plea bargaining decisions is scarce. While it’s simple enough to obtain information on a few criminal cases, no government entity compiles comprehensive data on charging decisions. This leaves challengers and voters less informed on how a prosecutor’s office operates.
Florida and Connecticut are among the states that have started collecting and publicizing data on prosecutor actions. House Bill 3848, a proposal that would have mandated district attorney data collection throughout Oklahoma by 2024, was not heard in committee and will not be eligible for consideration until next year.
There are some potential obstacles to such an effort. Widespread data collection requires time, money and manpower. Florida, which passed its justice data collection law in 2018, has struggled to make its data timely and available.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue and if you think the legislature should do anything about it. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter.
House Bill 3316, a proposal to authorize the state to automatically expunge certain low-level criminal records, passed the Senate last week. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the bill into law on Monday.
In March, I examined Oklahoma’s current expungement system and the potential benefits of House Bill 3316. It’s common for a simple expungement to cost thousands of dollars and take several months to complete.
Expect it to take a few years for state officials to fully implement an automatic expungement system.
What I’m Reading This Week
- French Documentary Examines Oklahoma’s Female Incarceration Rate: The documentary produced by a French journalist whose Oklahoma County Jail media request became the subject of a controversial voicemail by jail officials has made a partial debut. Oklahoma has one of the world’s highest female incarceration rates. [NonDoc]
- Justices Wrestle With Oklahoma’s Authority Over Crime on Reservations: Oklahoma state officials made the case to the Supreme Court last Wednesday that it has authority to prosecute some crimes committed on Native American reservations. A decision on the case is expected this summer. [The Oklahoman]
- Stitt Rescinds Parole For Notorious Crossbow Killer: Gov. Kevin Stitt reversed course late Thursday on his decision to grant parole to 69-year-old Jimmie Dean Stohler. In a letter to the Pardon and Parole Board, Stitt’s general counsel wrote that the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office had presented new evidence about Stohler’s crime that prompted the denial. [The Tulsa World]
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From the impact of COVID-19 behind bars to the effects of prison gerrymandering, my reporting focuses on how Oklahoma’s criminal justice system impacts people inside and outside of the system. It can take weeks or months for me to file public records requests, dig into documents and track down sources. As a nonprofit news organization, we rely on your financial support to do this time-consuming but important work. Help us make a difference.