Oklahoma County saw a record high number of felony charges filed in 2015 and the district attorney says his lawyers are “maxed out.”
“I think we're about as high as we've ever been,” District Attorney David Prater said. “We have to prioritize ... When we are in an emergency situation, like we are now with increased case loads and decreased lawyers due to decreased state appropriations, we have to attempt to carefully prioritize our efforts.”
Prater, his prosecutors and prosecutors with the Attorney General's Office filed 9,171 felony cases last year, 407 more than in 2014. A list dating back to 1990 shows 2015 had the highest amount of felony filings in more than 25 years. The lowest number was 6,761 felony cases filed in 2001
Prater said the high number of felonies is concerning because “our budgets continue to be more and more underfunded to the point where we are 10 lawyers fewer than a year ago and our support staff is down, as well.
“Addressing a greater number of felony filings with fewer staff is almost unsustainable.”
Prater noted Oklahoma County's quickly increasing population as an obvious contributor to the rising numbers of felony filings. But he also pointed to two areas with a lack of resources that contribute to the crime rate.
“I attribute the high number of criminal filings in this county to the fact that we have too few resources to address mental health and substance abuse issues in our state because those issues drive the majority of the criminal behavior in our communities,” Prater said.
He said there were very few murders last year that were not somehow related to either narcotics, alcohol or mental health issues. More than a hundred pending murder cases are awaiting trial. Oklahoma City police reported 89 homicides last year.
“We're looking at not just increased felony filings, but also a decrease in the appropriations coming to our office which means there will be fewer and fewer attorneys to assign to those increased case loads,” he said.
“We're going in the wrong direction on both ends of this deal regarding resources being applied to the criminal justice system and then the number of cases being filed.”
Prater said that dividing more than 9,100 felony cases among 50 lawyers, along with assigning attorneys to thousands of misdemeanor cases, “can affect public safety.” He said appropriations have been falling since 2008.
“We lost $167,000 just in the last 6 months of this fiscal year when state government asked us to decrease our funding by 10 percent,” Prater said. He expects more losses this coming fiscal year.
Data shows the second highest year for felony cases was 1994 with 9,006 cases.
Misdemeanor charges were down last year with 3,850 filings. In 2014, 4,120 misdemeanors were filed.
Civil and traffic cases
There were 25,471 small claims civil cases filed last year. Since 1990, the most small claims filed in a year were in 2006 with 28,744. The last time the county saw less than 20,000 annual small claims was in 1990.
Civil cases concerning damages in excess of $10,000 are at a record low, according to the 25-year data provided. Those civil cases reached 7,034 filings last year. In 2009, the last year of the nationwide recession, the county saw 12,637, its highest number of these types of civil cases.
The number of 2015 traffic cases reached 32,715, down from the year before.