Can a candidate for prosecutor make Payne and Logan counties “a mecca for criminal justice reform?”
This article is part of the Political Report’s coverage of criminal justice in the 2018 elections.
In her bid for a second term as the Republican district attorney of Payne and Logan counties, Laura Austin Thomas defends maintaining the status quo on prosecution. “Criminal justice reform is a very fun and nice and popular political sound bite, but a lot of it’s empty, empty words,” she said at a candidate forum. “The district attorney’s office can’t continue to be the dumping ground for it.” She faces Cory Williams, a Democratic state representative who has said that he is running to make Payne and Logan counties “a mecca for criminal justice reform in this state.” “We can change the paradigm of the entire state because we did it right here,” he added.
Thomas and Williams hold contrary views when it comes to sentencing. “Oklahoma desperately needs sentencing reform because we have a lot of incredibly draconian sentences that we don’t actually realize any value out of,” Williams said in a 2015 story published in The Oklahoman about people serving life without parole sentences because of the three-strikes drug law. That same year, Williams sponsored a bill that loosened that statute. He also pushed to make marijuana possession a misdemeanor. Then, in 2016, Oklahomans adopted State Question 780, an initiative that made possessing any drug a misdemeanor; Williams has since opposed legislative efforts to scale back that initiative.
But Thomas denounced State Question 780 in an op-ed she wrote in 2015, defending the practice of charging drug possession as a felony. “Misdemeanor sentences do not carry consequences large enough to leverage a commitment to treatment for many of the most serious user,” she warned.
Williams is now proposing to reform the DA’s office. “One of my primary goals is to lower the amount of fines, fees, and costs associated with prosecuting crime,” he said at a forum, faulting the practice of “fil[ing] a felony version of a crime that also has a misdemeanor because the felony has more fines, fees, and costs attached to it.” He has similarly criticized prosecutors’ habit of stacking multiple charges. In his answers to an ACLU questionnaire as elsewhere, he also commits to curbing cash bail, expanding diversion programs and partnering with local groups to expand treatment options, and releasing statistics about racial disparities linked to prosecutorial decisions.
Thomas refused to answer the ACLU’s questionnaire, writing that “most of the things you want me to ‘pledge’ would violate the oath of office I took.” During the GOP primary, she mocked her challenger Jill Ochs-Tontz for her work as a defense attorney. “She comes in our office and throws fits when we ask that her client have to do community service like everyone else,” she said. “I’m not a criminal defense attorney, don’t want to be one, will never be one.”
Payne and Logan are Republican counties—combined, they voted for President Trump by 40 percentage points—so Williams faces an uphill climb. That said, he already represents a district that voted for Trump, albeit more narrowly according to data compiled by Daily Kos Elections.
update (Nov. 11): District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas won reelection on Nov. 6.