Bret Smith and James Walters, candidates for district judge for District 15, Office 2, answer five questions in advance of the Nov. 6 General Election.
1. Please describe how you, as judge, would ensure access to the courts for the redress grievances?
Smith: Judges are duty bound to ensure that every person with a legal interest in a court proceeding has the right to be heard in court. Several folks are unable financially to hire private attorneys and their access to the courts may seem unachievable. Information about legal aid and other free attorney resources must be available for those in need. I have provided free representation to Veterans in a program called “Heros.” I routinely assist people who can’t afford legal representation. As judge, I will encourage attorneys to serve the indigent and make donations to legal aid groups and the Oklahoma Bar Foundation. The foundation provides funding to Legal Aid and others. I am a fellow and in my fourth year serving as a trustee of the foundation.
Walters: I believe the first and foremost problem to address in this area is to ensure cases are moved along without unnecessary and continuing delay. Too many cases sit on the dockets for extraordinary lengths of time and I will do everything in my power to ensure cases are heard in a timely manner.
2. In what ways do you believe the state civil justice system is failing Oklahomans?
Walters: While not perfect, I believe our justice system is the best in the world. However, Oklahoma’s legislature has made attempts over the past several years to address many issues arising within the civil system and it would be inappropriate for me, as a judicial candidate, to comment on such laws and policy decisions as these issues could, potentially, come before my court and I am required by law to remain neutral and unbiased.
Smith: In general, our state civil courts are functioning well. Our justice system provides opportunities to resolve conflicts in a peaceful and orderly manner. However, a tremendous failing of the system is the way we treat the mentally ill. Families across this state have few resources to utilize when a loved one is in crisis. Often the only choice family members have is to call the police for help, resulting too often in the struggling person being arrested and put in jail. I would rather see a civil commitment to a mental health facility so that person gets treatment, but those resources are shrinking. We must adequately fund mental health services to give the police and judges more options to help the mentally ill.
3. What role do you believe a judge has as the state addresses prison overcrowding?
Smith: Prison overcrowding and high incarceration rates are issues that must be addressed by the governor, Legislature, and the courts. Diversionary programs such as drug court, veterans court, and community sentencing are being used to reduce incarceration rates for non-violent offenders. As a board member of Muskogee Community Sentencing I am working to expand resources to help rehabilitate eligible defendants instead of jailing them. Reduced incarceration rates will save taxpayers money and will help keep families together. Non-incarcerated defendants must address drug and mental health issues and join the workforce. As judge, I will utilize diversionary programs to help rehabilitate non-violent offenders.
Walters: I believe the judiciary, along with the district attorneys, the legislature, and public and private organizations need to work together to address this situation. A primary area of concern is more access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health, the lack thereof I believe is one of the major contributors to prison overcrowding. Judges have latitude to be somewhat creative in some sentencing situations and should use that latitude to work with other organizations and government officials to develop punishment alternatives to prison when such alternatives are appropriate.
4. Please describe your position as it relates to capital punishment?
Walters: Judges and judicial candidates are prohibited by law to respond to such questions and, therefore, I must decline to respond. I would add, however, that I will always follow the letter of the law as it applies to the facts, circumstances, and evidence of each individual case brought before me.
Smith: Judges have to be impartial and fair. Expressing personal views on issues can impede the fair administration of justice. The death penalty is an option in punishing a defendant charged with first-degree murder that is committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner. Other sentencing options are life imprisonment without parole and life imprisonment. As judge I will consider all options. I will uphold, follow and apply the law.
5. How has the state judiciary influenced the fact that Oklahoma incarcerates women at the nation’s highest rate?
Smith: In general, the state prison system houses twice as many males as are being held in county jails. For women, that number is more evenly split — approximately equal numbers of women are in prison as are in county jails. Several of those women in jail are awaiting trial. Women have a more difficult time making bail than men due to finances. Reducing bail amounts for folks who are not a flight risk or dangerous is one approach to the problem. Families suffer when moms are in jail. Also, Oklahoma has stricter punishments than other states for the same offenses. Defendants with multiple convictions face minimum punishments that are harsh. A reasonable sentence should reflect the seriousness of the crime, promote respect for the law, and provide just punishment. Sentences should be fair, and common sense must rule the day. Judges have to be mindful of imposing fines, fees, and costs that realistically can’t be paid. Nonpayment of criminal financial sanctions result in defendants being jailed again.
Walters: I am not sure I would state that our judiciary has influenced Oklahoma’s alarming rate of female incarceration. The largest percentage of criminal cases are settled out of court through plea agreements between the district attorneys and the defense. Judges, generally, do not interfere with such plea agreements as long as the terms thereto are within the statutory guidelines. Although, any time a plea agreement shocks the conscience of the public, I believe a judge should, and may very well be obligated, to deny such. Cases not settled through plea agreements are often determined by jury trials. I do believe female defendants can be treated more harshly, especially by juries, but the reason for such would be nothing more than speculation on my part. Some cases, a small percentage, are settled through blind pleas to the court, which simply means the defendant is entering a plea without the benefit of an agreement from the district attorney. Here, however, there is a report conducted by the Department of Corrections referred to as a Pre-Sentence Investigation that the court gives great deference to in determining an appropriate sentence and, again, these are a minority of the cases.