Thursday, July 09, 2020

OCPA Fellow: To achieve criminal justice reform, everyone needs to chill

To achieve criminal justice reform, everyone needs to chill
by Ryan Haynie, Criminal Justice Reform Fellow at Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs

Ideas like proportionality and nuance are rapidly declining among the most vocal and those wielding the most power in our culture. In late May, a large group marched in the streets of Oklahoma City in protest of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The protest eventually devolved into rioting and destruction of property.

The extent to which the destructive behavior can be associated with the original protest has been hotly debated and won’t be addressed here. The damage included everything from graffiti to a destroyed police vehicle. In short, things got out of hand. Some innocent people, including the taxpayers of Oklahoma City, suffered harm.

In response, David Prater, District Attorney for Oklahoma County, charged three individuals with multiple felonies including terrorism. Oklahoma’s terrorism statute was enacted in 2002 as a response to the 9-11 attacks. To charge these individuals with a crime intended for Al Qaeda and Timothy McVeigh defies reason.

Prosecutorial discretion is a necessary element of any criminal justice system seeking to do justice and not just seek the maximum penalty for any given criminal act. The irony here is that Prater engaged in the same type of behavior he seeks to punish. Rather than respond to unlawful acts with reasonable charges, Prater took it too far—seeking an excessive charge that carries a term of life imprisonment.

Compounding the lack of balance, Black Lives Matter OKC released a statement on June 29, 2020, decrying the charges filed by Prater. In the statement, the organization claimed “[t]he only violence committed on May 30 and 31st was the excessive force of the OKC Police Department [and other local law enforcement].” The statement further labeled the charges “baseless” and downplayed the violent nature of those who did, in fact, destroy property and set fires.

Black Lives Matter OKC was correct in criticizing the overcharging of the three accused. But the rhetoric used undercuts their otherwise rational argument. As criminal justice reform advocates seek positive change to the system in Oklahoma, statements like these do a great disservice for the movement. The average Oklahoman sees these acts as violent and in need of some measured consequence, but understands it doesn’t rise to the level of terrorism.

If Oklahoma wants to dig itself out of the basement of mass incarceration, we all need to have a better sense of balance. Level heads need to prevail. We should all stand behind those who exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest. We should likewise call for order if things get out of hand. Finally, our elected officials shouldn’t make the problem worse by bringing vindictive charges that inflame and divide. What we all should do is seek justice.


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