First Assistant Tulsa County District Attorney John David Luton was speaking to an audience in early January when the question of how the state’s upcoming budget shortfall would affect the office.
Luton, speaking to the group of 40 people at the Brookside Baptist Church about District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler’s first year in charge of the office, shook his head.
“I can tell you it doesn’t look good,” he said.
The budget cuts — a mindblowing figure nearing a billion dollars — won’t leave many state agencies unaffected.
So when it comes to the Tulsa County District Attorneys Office and the Tulsa County Public Defenders Office, the two sides find themselves in the same boat — any cuts will impact attorneys on both sides.
Luton said the governor’s financial office, which sets their budget, had advised them to cut expenses by 5 percent “immediately,” with another, larger cut looming at the beginning of the 2017 Fiscal Year on July 1.
“Steve has been a good steward of the money we do have,” Luton said. “This (budget issue) is a struggle we have had historically.”
While Luton said the DA’s office had been forewarned of the massive budget tightening, Chief Tulsa County Public Defender Rob Nigh said he was unaware of what type of cuts — if any — may be coming.
While the public defender’s office budget is set by the Oklahoma Supreme Court instead of the governor, the two amounts are supposed to be “commensurate,” Nigh said. So bad news for one side could be bad news for both.
Weathering the storm
Luton told the crowd that he felt the DA’s office would survive the immediate 5 percent cut without trimming its roster of 47 attorneys. But they had been warned of another “possibly 10 percent or larger cut” looming when FY 2017 begins July 1, he said.
“That, we could likely not survive,” he said.
Only about 45 to 50 percent of district attorneys office budgets are supplied by the state. The remainder is comprised of supervision fees (some convicts, in lieu of prison time, check into the DA’s office regularly and pay $40 a month), or controversial funding sources such as civil asset forfeiture. Offices of district attorneys throughout the state used to collect money from prosecuting bogus checks. “But it’s 2016,” Kunzweiler said. “No one is writing checks anymore.”
For FY2015, Kunzweiler said the state appropriated $4,762,677 for his office of 115 employees.
“Show me another state agency that has to hunt for half its budget,” he said. “It won’t be DOC, it won’t be DHS, it won’t be the Department of Mental Health.
“I don’t like that I have to hunt dollars to protect my community, that’s immoral to me that that’s part of my job.”
The DA’s office filed thousands of felony cases last year, Luton said, and nearly the same amount of misdemeanors. He credited Kunzweiler’s implementation of “vertical prosecution” (teams of prosecutors working on similar cases, i.e., one team handles all homicides, another team handles all sex crimes,) for that number, an increase of hundreds of cases from 2014.
But the loss of even a few prosecutors could have a large impact, Luton said.
Nigh would face a similar challenge. His attorneys routinely work 80 percent of the felony cases in Tulsa County, a number that already taxes his office.
The 17 public defenders who work felony cases defended 4,122 cases in FY2014, Nigh said, an average of more than 240 cases per attorney.
“Criminal justice standards recommend no more than 150 cases per attorney,” Nigh said. “We’re already handling nearly twice that amount. Any more than that would be very difficult to withstand.”
That’s not the only predicament Nigh faces every year. For FY2016, the public defender’s office budget sat at $4.4 million, which was actually a $200,000 increase over the previous year. But factoring in operating costs, that doesn’t leave much behind for payroll.
“Many of our attorneys are at an age where they have families,” Nigh said. Nationwide, most entry-level public defender positions pay between $40,000-$45,000.
“Sometimes just starting out, sometimes children in college. They all love this job. In order to do this job you have to be a true believer, so I know they’re not in it for the money. But it’s a matter of being able to make ends meet.
“If we’re going to face a salary cut for the next fiscal year — something I hope does not happen and I will do everything in my power to stop from happening — I couldn’t blame them at all for looking at other options. That’s the reality of trying to survive economically.”
James Pfeffer, the leader of Tulsa County’s nine-person “general felony team” pushes a plastic cart carrying up to 100 folders into a courtroom every morning. The folders contain all of that day’s felony cases his team will see that day, and today it includes things like arson, burglaries and drug cases.
At least four times a week, Pfeffer or someone on his team pushes that cart into a fourth-floor courtroom.
During a break in the morning, Pfeffer and defense attorney Marcus Wright discuss one of Wright’s client’s cases. The two attorneys are in the chambers of District Judge Kelly Greenough, who is beginning her first day as a judge after being selected by Gov. Mary Fallin’s office to replace former presiding Judge Carlos Chappelle, who died last year.
Wright wants Pfeffer to agree to a deferred sentence for his client, who was arrested with drugs and a gun in his vehicle. His client was set to enter a blind plea in front of District Judge Sharon Holmes, but when Greenough took over her docket during some recent reshuffling, he changed his mind.
Before long the two attorneys come to an agreement — Wright’s client will wait on a pre-sentence investigation. If it comes back clean, his sentence will be deferred.
“We do like 7,000 felony cases a year, some with three or four defendants, and I think we can do about 120 trials a year,” Pfeffer said. “If you do the math, some of them have to be worked out like this.”
The 6,995 felony cases filed by the DA’s office in 2015 was the highest since at least 2002, Luton said. So any cutbacks in staff, or other measures like furloughs, could theoretically affect that number.
“Some DA’s offices in western Oklahoma furloughed two or three times last year,” Luton said.
For Nigh, that number is not exactly cause for celebration.
“We know that poor people get charged more often than rich people, it’s reality,” he said. “Since we represent 80 percent of felony cases, a loss of manpower, or a loss of man hours, would mean that there would be people in Tulsa County who would not receive the kind of defense we would like to provide them.”
Kunzweiler said a budget cut would affect not only his employees, but the victims they work on behalf of every day.
“When you can’t pay your employees enough to retain them, the causal effect is, unfortunately, you have less experienced attorneys representing victim-related crimes,” Kunzweiler said. “The risk you run is inexperience. This is about people’s lives.”