Trent England | July 7, 2020
Conflicts of interest in criminal justice?
District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas, who covers Payne and Logan counties, has attacked two members of the Pardon and Parole Board. She says they have conflicts of interest because they are involved with a nonprofit charity that helps those released from prison. In another post, I describe a few of the legal mistakes that she seems to make.
The real conflicts of interest in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, however, are found within government—including district attorneys’ offices.
Oklahoma governments are notorious for trying to extract funds from people within the criminal justice system. Fines, fees, and court costs amounted to $168 million in 2017, but that is just what was collected. Considering how many of those people are destitute, and that more than half suffer from drug addictions or mental health conditions (often both), such policies border on absurdity. Even when they do not actually extract revenue, they can still bury recently released people under massive debts or force them into bankruptcy.
Governments also benefit from cheap prisoner labor. Is that a conflict of interest? It certainly created conflict when the Department of Corrections, in order to save money, closed some local work centers. Cities complained and tried to get the legislature to block the move. Why? Because they would have to pay market rates for labor.
Finally, the most egregious conflict of interest is civil asset forfeiture. This process allows district attorneys’ offices to take and keep private property without even charging anyone with a crime—let alone getting a conviction. The Institute for Justice calls this policing for profit, and has given Oklahoma a D- grade for our lack of protections on this dubious practice.
One of the most egregious examples of civil asset forfeiture happened in Muskogee. The sheriff’s department there seized $53,234 that had been raised for Christian ministries in Burma and Thailand. After receiving negative national publicity, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge returned the money.
Thomas is right that we should root out conflicts of interest within Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. Hopefully she’ll start looking in the right places.
David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow
Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.