Oklahoma will lose its prosecutors if we don’t fund them

Oklahoma’s justice system is on the brink of crisis. Qualified and experienced prosecutors are necessary for the proper functioning of the criminal justice system, but prosecutors are leaving district attorneys’ offices in increasing numbers for the simple reason that we cannot afford a competitive salary. Increasing workloads, dealing with odious situations and the lack of adequate remuneration make it difficult to recruit and retain prosecutors. Finding prosecutors to replace these vacancies proved increasingly problematic.

Currently, the most common starting salary for an assistant district attorney in Oklahoma is $45,000 per year, while the cost of a law school education is now in the six-figure range. To complicate matters, neighboring states with similar structures pay prosecutors significantly more.

In Arkansas, the starting salary for an entry-level attorney approaches $70,000 and exceeds that of New Mexico. Additionally, with the Supreme Court’s decision in the McGirt case, state prosecutors’ offices cannot compete with the tribes or the federal government, which are actively recruiting experienced prosecutors with starting salaries ranging from $70 to $85,000 and growing from there.

While I don’t blame the tribes or the federal government for having the resources to hire experienced and proven prosecutors, it leaves a void in the state system and in my own community that I don’t have the capacity to to fill in.

I’ve had dedicated prosecutors submit their resignation letters with tears in their eyes, quitting a job they love, a job they excel at, just to make more money to support their families. The need for experienced prosecutors has become so great that district attorneys must compete for the limited pool of qualified people.

Funding problems are not limited to prosecutors alone. We see the same problem throughout our system. Statewide, district attorneys’ offices have lost more than 10 percent of our support staff and nearly 30 percent of our investigator positions over the past decade. This was not done for the sake of efficiency, but was necessary, due to our inability to pay enough salary to recruit good people to fill these vital roles.

When people are victimized by violent criminals and go through the worst times of their lives, we rely on prosecutors to give victims a voice and fight for justice. If you or someone you love were the victim of a crime, who in your corner would you want to continue your fight for justice? If our offices can’t do the job because we’re understaffed and we can’t compete for the best and brightest prosecutors, it’s Oklahoma’s victims and our overall public safety that pay the price. It is high time to make the funding of prosecutors a legislative priority.

Matt Ballard is the district attorney for District 12 in northeast Oklahoma. He is president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, a private association leading discussions on public safety in the state. For more information, search for ODAA on Facebook.

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