Saturday, January 21, 2012

OK prosecutors have financial interest in case disposition

Oklahoma prosecutors have a unique and troubling way of raising revenue in these difficult economic times.  Although, the Oklahoma program appears to be unique, budget woes have forced prosecutors nationwide to raise funds from offenders by, for example, seizing assets that are connected to crimes, said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Ronald Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law in North Carolina, called the Oklahoma program troubling. "It gives prosecutors an economic reason to increase the length of time for people to be on DA supervision," he told the Journal.

Having a financial interest in the disposition of a case creates an incentive to craft a plea that would put more money in the DA's coffers.  A case that might have otherwise ended in jail time might be diverted to supervision.  In fact, a case that might have been unsupervised or supervised for a shorter period of time is supervised for a longer period to generate supervision fees.  On its face the financial interest creates, at a minimum, the perception of a conflict of interest.

The Wall Street Journal points out another point of concern with DA supervision of offenders. "The majority of DA's offices do not have the resources to ensure the same levels of supervision as those provided by a probation officer working for" Oklahoma's prison system, according to the report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that advises states on public-safety issues. DA supervision "may be inadequate for high- or moderate-risk offenders," the report concluded.

Much of the growth in the programs has come from felons: There are about 10,500 under DA supervision, a number that has almost tripled since 2008. Defense lawyers said prosecutors too often supervise relatively serious drug offenders, including those caught using and manufacturing methamphetamine, reported the Journal.

The Oklahoma legislature established the program in 2003 as a way to generate extra revenue for prosecutors. The state's prison department also supervises probationers, typically higher-risk offenders, and likewise charges a $40 monthly fee.

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