Tulsa County was nearing its most consequential district attorney election in years: Former DA Tim Harris had been the county’s top prosecutor for 16 years. After he stepped away from the role, he was immediately followed by Steve Kunzweiler, one of his closest allies.
But Kunzweiler’s first term wasn’t easy, and there were some locally who bucked against his perceived old-school ways.
Westcott, a conservative, nonetheless holds a more reform-minded view of criminal justice and said she had been approached at times by those seeking to gauge her interest in running against Kunzweiler in 2018.
“I wouldn’t tell them no or yes,” Westcott told The Frontier during a recent interview. “I had been thinking about it for a long time, but it was a hard decision.”
Westcott, currently the program director at Tulsa COURTS, the county’s alternative courts program, was forced to weigh her current position against the prospect of seeking political office.
“I love my job now, I love my team,” Westcott said. “My life is fairly simple. I know (being the district attorney) is a much bigger commitment.
“It came down to where I didn’t hear a candidate really expressing the message that I intend to bring and who had the full knowledge and depth of experience that I have.”
Westcott interned under Harris at the DA’s office from 2007 to 2008, then worked under Harris and eventually Kunzweiler as an assistant district attorney from 2008 to 2016. Her somewhat surprise filing made her the third Republican (Kunzweiler, Ben Fu,) to seek the office. One Democrat, Jenny Proehl-Day, also filed.
Like Fu and Proehl-Day, Westcott said she intends to run on a criminal justice reform platform.
But what sets her apart, she said, is her combination of practical and managerial experience. Westcott travels the country as part of her job to train other jurisdictions how to effectively run alternative courts programs. Her Tulsa COURTS program is made up of diversionary courts for mental health patients, veterans, addicts and those charged with DUIs.
“I have a depth of managerial experience,” she said. “The DA’s office, ultimately, is a law firm. I’ve managed teams and nonprofits before going to law school. I have the most managerial experience of anyone on the ballot. I have the greatest depth of knowledge about criminal justice reforms that are working around the country.”
Westcott said that she would “bring a new culture and paradigm” as district attorney.
“When I was there, I saw issues that a good leader could solve,” she said. “A good leader creates a unified vision and eliminates issues that can arise in a team. Then everyone feels better and you have better results and a better working atmosphere.”
As district attorney, Westcott said her focus would be on “best outcomes” rather than incarceration. Oklahoma leads the nation in female incarceration and is second in overall incarceration behind Louisiana, a state that recently passed a number of strong criminal justice reform measures.
“Ensuring those that need to go to prison go to prison is very important, as is making sure we have the very best trial team possible to make sure that violent offenders and those who need to be taken off the streets go to prison,” Westcott said. “There are a lot of non-violent people who can have better outcomes through diversion, where prison actually creates a worse outcome in terms of recidivism. It’s a tough paradigm for people to embrace, the idea that keeping people out of prison increases public safety. But data shows that’s true.”
Different locations, different methods
Criminal justice reform is taking hold in different areas across the country, where areas marked by high incarceration rates are seeking a different way of doing things. Westcott said that one thing she’s learned through traveling to some of these areas is there’s not a one-size fits all answer.
“First of all, you have to study your own county,” she said. “You can’t just say, ‘well, they’re doing this in Chicago,’ or ‘here’s how it works in Dallas.’ Everyone is different.
“What I see in Tulsa is the need to lower incarceration rates. We’re incarcerating too many people with mental illness, people who are not a risk to public safety,” she said. “They need help and we’re just sending them off to prison.”
She also wants to implement bail reform in Tulsa County.
“We keep everyone in county jail on a cash bond, and if you can’t post cash, you stay in,” she said. “It’s unfair to the poor, and secondly it motivates pleas and dispositions of cases based on someone just wanting to get out of jail rather than the best outcome for their case. And thirdly it’s not based on what it should be — we should hold people who are a flight risk or a public safety risk, bot based on their ability to pay or not pay.”
Will Tulsa embrace the change?
Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly embraced two criminal justice reform state questions in 2016, and though some lawmakers (and district attorneys) have criticized the reforms, legislators passed more law changes in the most recent session.
Ben Fu said he believed State Questions 780 and 781 “went too far,” while Proehl-Day said she was in favor of the laws.
Kunzweiler has said numerous times he was not in favor of SQ 780 and 781 (SQ 780 lessened penalties for some drug and property crime offenses,) saying it would take away his ability to convince someone to enter drug treatment courts.
Westcott, who coordinates the drug treatment court, said she believes Oklahomans who supported the state questions were saying “It’s time for a change.”
“They wanted to do something different,” she said. “They spoke loudly.”
Westcott believes Tulsa County can be a model for not only the rest of Oklahoma but for the rest of the nation.
“Let it start here,” she said. “Let’s do some reforms that make sense, where we can use our data to show we’re leading Oklahoma in a different direction.”
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