A top lawmaker disagrees with Gov. Kevin Stitt’s assertion that his budget is “fully funding” district attorneys, and the legislator says much more must be done to wean the state off its reliance on court collections to fund government.
Stitt announced in mid-May that the Legislature would appropriate an additional $20 million this budget cycle to be “fully funding” prosecutors. Doing so will remove the “perverse incentive” of relying on charges assessed to defendants that may create a debtors’ prison system, he said.
Some officials say Stitt’s characterization of “fully funding” is inaccurate, with district attorneys still responsible for generating a large portion of their own budgets.
The costs supplanted by that $20 million — fees for supervising or monitoring services — will still be collected by district attorneys, the officials said. But those fees now will go into the state’s general fund, rather than be earmarked for return to prosecutors, to create some level of separation.
Sen. Roger Thompson, Appropriations Committee chairman, recently told the Tulsa World he disagrees with Stitt’s statement. The purpose was to try to make prosecutors less dependent on fees for operational expenses and to put a curtain between their collection and expenditure, he said.
Thompson said it would take “well in excess of $100 million” to fully fund prosecutorial offices. The Legislature appropriated $58.8 million to the District Attorneys Council for fiscal year 2020, up from $36.1 million the previous cycle.
Thompson said he believes Stitt didn’t have a complete understanding of what the Legislature was doing. Thompson has since spoken with some of the governor’s staff.
“I’m confident that (Stitt) is understanding now what we’re doing,” he said.
Trent Baggett, DAC executive coordinator, agreed with Thompson in that it would take more than $100 million to fully fund district attorneys.
The District Attorneys Council serves as a conduit to distribute state appropriations to each district attorney.
Baggett noted an additional $2.7 million in state appropriations will cover employee raises for district attorney offices, which will leave an extra $1 million for the DAC to divvy up as it sees fit.
On average, district attorneys generate 50% to 60% of their budgets through fees and federal grants, according to recent DAC budget and performance reviews. Only 44.6% of district attorneys’ funding came from state-appropriated dollars in the most recent year.
Baggett said he is happy with the recent legislative measures, but he is unsure how much money district attorneys will still have to come up with to make their budgets whole.
“It’s still going to be a large amount,” Baggett said.
In response to a Tulsa World reporter’s questions about whether Stitt’s comments on “fully funding” prosecutors were misleading or wrong, his office released a statement:
“In a bold move, the governor prioritized appropriating $20 million for our district attorneys in order to address supervision fees they have historically relied on for operational expenses,” wrote Baylee Lakey, communications director. “In addition, the governor provided $1 million to fund salary increases for our assistant DAs who faithfully work to protect the citizens of Oklahoma each day.”
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform lamented the fact that fees themselves weren’t reduced with the legislative action.
“This was not criminal justice reform; this was accounting reform,” said John Estus, chief of staff for OCJR. “It’s good to see a reduction in the reliance on fees by prosecutors; however, these fees are still being paid by justice-involved people.
“All this did was move this money into a different account.”
Goal to cut court collections in half
Divorcing state government from its growing reliance on court collections began more slowly in the recent legislative session than Thompson had hoped for in what he envisions as a three-year effort.
Thompson, R-Okemah, said his target is to cut fines, fees and court costs by $80 million in the next two years — or about half of the $163.7 million in court collections for fiscal year 2018.
“It is a worthy goal that I am dedicated to pursuing,” he said.
Thompson said there still must be a price paid for committing a crime, but finding additional state dollars to replace $80 million in court collections will enable the judicial system “to function without excessive fines and fees.”
Fines, fees and court costs assessed to defendants have risen 27% since fiscal year 2007 as state and local government agencies increasingly depend on them for revenue, the Tulsa World reported last month.
Court collections for entities unrelated to judicial branch operations reached 52 designated funds, up 50% from 34 in fiscal year 2007. The Legislature saddled defendants with two administrative charges in recent years that collectively impose an extra 25% on all assessments collected by courts for executive branch purposes.
Jari Askins, administrative director of the courts, said her budget for fiscal year 2020 more accurately reflects expenses and is in the “best shape in years.”
District court appropriations were boosted to $18.8 million, a level not seen since fiscal year 2010. The appropriated amount was $14.4 million a year ago.
Askins said an “enormous amount of education” has began with legislators and Stitt’s executive administration to explain the complex financial structure of the courts. She said lawmakers are making an effort to help the courts find more solid fiscal footing.
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