Tulsa is a long way from home — both literally and figuratively — for the Minnesota-born Jenny Proehl-Day.
Born in a small town of about 3,000, “a less than ideal” childhood spurred her decision to attend the University of Tulsa. From there she graduated from law school, worked at the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office and then went into private practice in 2015.
Now she’s running as a Democrat to become Tulsa County District Attorney.
Proehl-Day, 36, isn’t bashful about her upbringing — living in a trailer park with a mother who battled mental health issues and a brother who struggled with bipolar disorder and drugs. It’s actually those struggles that she thinks make her uniquely qualified to be the county’s top prosecutor.
For Proehl-Day, it’s all about time and place.
“I think it’s important for people who are in a position of power to have real life experiences,” she said during a recent interview with The Frontier. “It’s very easy to sit behind a desk and charge people for a morally superior stance when life has never thrown anything to test your grit.”
Proehl-Day formally announced her bid to become DA on Tuesday. Barring any unforeseen changes, she will face off with either Ben Fu, her former co-worker, or Steve Kunzweiler, her former boss. Fu and Kunzweiler, both Republicans, will meet in June’s primary election.
Proehl-Day is the only announced Democrat running for election.
Tough on crime
Proehl-Day knows that demographically speaking, she’s not your average district attorney. A female Democrat in a county where the top prosecutor has been a Republican male for decades?
But, she argues, maybe that will work to her advantage.
Oklahoma “is in a crisis,” she said, pointing to skyrocketing incarceration figures and Tulsa County’s rising homicide rate. Despite being a deeply conservative state, Oklahomans overwhelming approved some criminal justice reform measures in 2016 — measures Kunzweiler vocally opposed.
“There’s this thought that criminal justice reform is a liberal thing, but honestly, I would point out that from a conservative fiscal standpoint, you should be embracing reform because the way it is now we’re expending too much money on incarceration.”
Fu, in an interview earlier this month with The Frontier, talked about his ideas for what reform would look like in Tulsa County. In the interview he said State Questions 780 and 781, which lessened punishments for drug possession and some property theft crimes “went too far.”
Kunzweiler has been a vocal opponent of those reforms, arguing that they neuter a prosecutor’s ability to push defendants into drug court.
“Mr. Kunzweiler ran on tough on crime, as did Mr. Harris — I would play devil’s advocate and ask what has tough on crime given us,” Proehl-Day said. “A lot of people think criminal justice reform means you’re being soft on crime. I would combat that and say that being smart on crime is not being soft.”
Proehl-Day described her method of case intake as a “cost-benefit analysis.” A DA’s office has limited resources, she said, so the idea that everyone who commits a crime has to receive a criminal charge is “outdated.”
“Do you take your energy and spend it on petty crime, or do you take the resources you have and focus on violent crimes?” she said. “The idea that we have to charge something because a law is on the books is just not accurate. In Oklahoma, adultery is a misdemeanor, but we don’t charge anyone with that.
“What we’re doing right now, it just isn’t making Oklahoma safer, or Tulsa County safer.”
Convincing voters that she has the answers will be a challenge, but Proehl-Day told The Frontier she doesn’t believe it would take much time for her style to filter through the DA’s office.
“Change in that environment starts at the top,” she said. “You start that process of culture change by electing an individual who has a different version of what criminal justice looks like. Then I would put people in positions of leadership in the office who see criminal justice how I see criminal justice.”
Proehl-Day said that Tammy Westcott — currently the “Incarceration Reduction Division Director” for the Community Service Council — would serve as her first assistant district attorney.
“I think once you get people in there who want to be there because they want to effect change, you’re going to immediately see a change in the direction that the office is going in.”
Change at the top
A female district attorney might sound unusual to Tulsa County voters who are used to names like Kunzweiler, or Tim Harris, or David L. Moss. But around the country more and more female DA’s are being elected on change platforms.
“I want to make change,” Proehl-Day said. “I think my plan is a lot more visionary than what Tulsa is used to. But I would encourage everybody who says that (my platform) would be unusual for a DA to look around the country.”
Proeh-Day pointed to Dallas, San Diego and Chicago, all places where women running on criminal justice platforms were elected.
“I think there’s this idea that a district attorney is a middle-aged man, and that’s what you’re used to,” she said. “If you look back over the last 20 years to where we’re at right now in Oklahoma and in Tulsa, I can say confidently that it hasn’t worked.
“So why not try something new?”