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Changing hearts, getting free

ACLU of Oklahoma educates voters on the power of district attorneys

Nicole McAfee

Courtney DeSpain

When it comes to putting people behind bars, Oklahoma stands alone. The state leads the nation in the incarceration of women, and was—until very recently—a close second overall. But after the passage of recent criminal justice reforms in Louisiana, the Sooner State has officially become the largest incarcerator on the face of the planet.

This isn’t where anyone wants to be, but few organizations are taking action like the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. Thanks to a grant from the national ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, the nonprofit has launched a new initiative designed to bring stories and legal information about criminal justice reform directly to the people, with a focus on contested district attorney races, ahead of the upcoming midterm elections on Nov. 6.

The civil rights organization will hold a forum around the topic on Oct. 16 at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Tulsa. In addition to hosting the two candidates for Tulsa County District Attorney, Jenny Proehl-Day and Steve Kunzweiler, the event will also offer the public a chance to hear directly from people whose lives have been upended by Oklahoma’s draconian criminal justice system.

“We want to change hearts and minds about what justice means,” says Smart Justice campaign manager Nicole McAfee. “Most people know someone who has been incarcerated. It touches families. It touches friends. But there’s often such a stigma around incarceration—and talking about it can be really hard.

“Part of what we’re doing is trying to create a platform for people to talk about how they’ve been impacted, and also for folks who haven’t to learn what that looks like,” McAfee said. “The idea is to re-frame who we think of when we talk about people who are in prisons and jails.”

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice aims to curb the country’s world-record incarceration rates, with the long-term goal of reducing prison populations nationally by 50 percent. To this end, funds were awarded to 10 states with high rates of incarceration and high potential for meaningful reform. The idea of this nationwide initiative is to enact change legislatively and through district attorney races by centering the issue of criminal justice reform in those elections.

“Our plan is to work with people who have been incarcerated, to help them tell their stories of what it’s like to be over-prosecuted and have your life ruined by a district attorney,” said Alli Shinn, director of external affairs for ACLU of Oklahoma.

“Part of what we’re trying to do here is address why district attorneys so often run unopposed,” Shinn said. “They have this great amount of power over the lives of the people they ostensibly serve—but too often there’s no race at all, and if there is, criminal justice reform isn’t at the center of it.”

Tulsa is one of the few Oklahoma counties where voters have a choice, as the reform candidate Jenny Proehl-Day squares off against Republican incumbent Steve Kunzweiler in the Nov. 6 midterm. As a nonpartisan organization, the ACLU does not endorse or oppose candidates as a general rule. (A notable exception came on Sept. 29, when the nonprofit announced its opposition to Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh, a rare step taken only four times in the ACLU’s 98-year history.) The early stages of this new initiative aim to educate voters in counties with contested DA races on the outsized power of the office to prosecute and sentence defendants on the county’s behalf.

“We know that after November, this person will have four years before we can hold them accountable at the ballot box,” McAfee said. “So we want to make sure people know how [the candidates] would run their office. For the next four years, we want make sure they’re doing what they said they’re going to do to change the face of mass incarceration in Oklahoma.”

The goal is to transition into a statewide public awareness campaign, but for now the focus is on the counties of Tulsa, Payne, Logan, Hughes, Seminole, and Pontotoc.

“There are only 8 out of 27 district attorney races where people actually get a say in who one of the most powerful people in the criminal justice system is,” McAfee said. “So that’s the starting point for our voter education efforts.”

Its goals are ultimately electoral, but the real work of the campaign is about building relationships. “We believe the folks closest to the problem are closest to the solutions,” McAfee said. Since the people most damaged by the system often don’t have the resources to enact the reforms needed to change it, the goal of the Smart Justice campaign is to amplify those voices and make them a serious factor in district attorney elections.

“Oklahoma voters are far ahead of a lot of our policy makers about the need for meaningful change,” McAfee said. She points to the success of State Questions 780 and 781, which re-classified many drug possession charges and directed savings to treatment resources. These voter-enacted reforms, if left intact by a meddling-prone legislature, will relieve some of the burden on overpopulated prisons and overpoliced communities across the state.

“That really gave folks some hope that with a continued effort we can change the narrative and prison structure in a way that shifts Oklahoma toward not only slowed prison growth, but actual de-carceration,” McAfee said. “People are ready to take action and do something that changes the system. The proof is at the ballot box.”

The campaign director’s work, while community-focused, is deeply personal. When her little sister was six, she witnessed the rape of her best friend by an older boy. He threatened them both at gunpoint, promising to kill them and their families if they ever told anyone.

“My sister went through several months of nightmares,” McAfee says. “We didn’t know what was wrong, until one day the sheriff knocked on our door and the story unfolded.”

Over the next several months, McAfee watched as her young sibling was prepped for court by an overzealous district attorney who assured the traumatized child that the boy would spend as much time in a juvenile detention center as possible. The fulfilment of that promise was supposed to be a comfort for the young victims of this brutal crime, but that’s not what it felt like to McAfee.

“I realized that didn’t bring any justice to my sister or her friend,” she says. “It didn’t help the trauma they’d been through. It didn’t help the boy who committed this act. It didn’t address the trauma that brought him to do it, or the trauma he inflicted on other people. It really just kind of left me questioning how and why we call this justice.”

That experience animates McAfee’s work on this bold new campaign. “It’s something I’ve lived with and thought about every day since then. Now I have the chance to lift up these broader discussions around how and why we incarcerate people, and why we continue to elect district attorneys who are more worried about their felony conviction rates than actually bringing real, restorative justice to the folks whose interests they’re supposed to represent. That’s what we’re trying to change here in Oklahoma.”

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