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‘I’m here to listen’

Jenny Proehl-Day centers criminal justice reform in her run for district attorney

Jenny Proehl-Day

Steven Hall

Jenny Proehl-Day is running for district attorney in Tulsa County, a position currently held by Steve Kunzweiler. In layman’s terms, the DA is responsible for pursuing alleged criminals and deciding what punishment they should receive.

Proehl-Day is from Minnesota but moved to Oklahoma to attend the University of Tulsa, where she also completed law school. Upon graduating, she worked in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office. Now at a private firm, Proehl-Day is ready to step back into the public sphere as the head of that office, with a bold vision for reform in tow.

Blayklee Freed: What is your vision for a fairer and more humane criminal justice system in Oklahoma?

Jenny Proehl-Day: You have to change the culture of the office. [. . .] There are prosecutors there that measure their success by the number of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole verdicts they’ve had, and the number of life sentences they get. They’re not really focusing on whether or not that person was actually guilty of the crime. So for me, I think it’s just changing the culture and moving form a one-size-fits-all criminal justice model to start doing individualized recommendations.

You start referring people to the appropriate alternative courts … you start making sure their probation involves treatment. If it’s addiction, then we do treatment. If it’s mental health, we connect you to resources. [. . .] If you don’t have a job because you don’t have a high school diploma, let’s get a G.E.D. Let’s learn a trade. Let’s give you the opportunity to make yourself better. So, yes, you’re held accountable for your actions, but we’re also focusing on the rehabilitative nature of the criminal justice system.

Freed: Why do you think Oklahoma locks up so many women, and what’s a way that you see to deter that?

Proehl-Day: I think Oklahoma locks up more women because they think they’re being equitable in justice. They say, ‘Well, you committed the crime and now you have to do the time. You wanted equal rights? Here you go.’ I think, long-term range, I don’t think people understood the consequences of the decisions they were making.

Freed: The people committing said crimes, or the people making these rules to lock them up?

Proehl-Day: Both. Oklahoma has a history of mass incarceration. We’ve been incarcerating women higher than anywhere else in the U.S. since 1991. Our tough-on-crime [stance], our war on drugs, was really successful at locking up poor minorities. [. . .] Oklahoma hasn’t taken the opportunity to address why these women are coming into our system [. . .] we never stopped to say, “What do you need to become better and healthier so you can be a good mother and raise your children and we can stop the cycle of generational incarceration?”

Oklahoma has just been really reactive, and now—almost 30 years later—we’re realizing we have created a crisis among our youth and public health because the majority of [incarcerated women] are the primary care giver to minor children. I don’t think our women commit more crime than anywhere else; I don’t think our women are more criminally-minded or more dangerous. I think our response has been to treat them like men.

Freed: What’s one or two things the DA’s office in Tulsa can do to stop disproportionally locking up people of color? And as a white woman, how do you plan on specifically helping communities when you’re not necessarily a part of them?

Proehl-Day: The number one thing we have to do is [. . .] acknowledge that there are inequalities in the criminal justice system as far as policing goes, as charging goes, and as recommendations go. Currently, [Kunzweiler] denies that there’s any racial bias in the system. We have to stop ignoring what the data is saying. And if you want more equitable outcomes in the criminal justice system, you need to start employing people who come from different backgrounds. [. . .] That office is not representative of the actual [demographic] makeup of our community.

When I go to [minority] communities, I tell them my experience in life is different than theirs. [. . .] I grew up in the trailer park. Nothing was ever given to me. [. . .] I’m the first person to go to college in my immediate family. I don’t come from an affluent background—so I understand a portion of it, but I make it very clear to them that while I’ve pulled myself up from my bootstraps, I’m aware that because of the color of my skin I was at least born with bootstraps. [. . .] I’m here to listen and ask what can we do to level out the playing field. [. . .] If I’m elected, I’m going to continue to have those frank conversations.

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