Candidates for the District 18 district attorney’s office clashed on several issues during the election forum held on Eastern Oklahoma State College’s McAlester Campus.
District 18 District Attorney Chuck Sullivan and challenger Terry Harrison participated in the Thursday night forum presented by the McAlester News-Capital in partnership with Ignite McAlester and the McAlester Chamber of Commerce.
Stephanie Giacomo, of Ignite McAlester, emceed the event, with questions asked by News-Capital Managing Editor James Beaty and News Editor Adrian O’Hanlon III.
Sullivan is the Republican candidate for the post, with Harrison running as a Democrat. They’ll face each other in the Nov. 6 General Election for the right to serve as chief prosecutor in Pittsburg and Haskell counties.
Sullivan, appointed to the office in 2016 after then-District Attorney Farley Ward retired, is now seeking election in his own right.
Harrison previously ran for the post in 2010, losing to Ward. He also served as the District 18 state representative from 2002 until 2010, when he opted to run for the DA’s office for the first time.
Both candidates spoke of the importance of events such as the candidate forum.
“I love these events,” Harrison said. “Theyr’e a very important part of our democracy.” He said he looks forward to seeing defendants fearful of being prosecuted by the DA’s office.
Sullivan said he’s been district attorney for two years and has six years experience in the district attorney’s office. He said he has experience in handling everything from traffic tickets to murder cases.
Both candidates were asked their opinion of State Question 794, aka Marsy’s Law, which would add several new rights for crime victims, including giving victims and their families a say in plea bargaining. SQ 794 will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“Who wouldn’t be for something that has a great name?” Harrison said, referring to Marcy’s Law. Harrison said he’s for a common-sense approach in handling cases. “I’m by and large for the bill as it is written,” he said.
Sullivan said “I’m for Marsy’s Law. In my experience as a prosecutor and district attorney, we were charged as a prosecutor with ensuring defendants’ rights are protected,” Sullivan said. He said he’s sat across the table from crime victims. “They ask ‘What about my rights?’” Sullivan said he’s in favor of establishing safeguards for victims, which he believes Marcy’s Law will address.
Both were asked what law enforcement can do to help solve the problem of addiction.
“The problem of addiction, that’s different than law enforcement,” Sullivan said. “The addiction problem is separate from the act.
“We punish the criminal act,” Sullivan said. “We have not taken an aggressive stance until recently toward addressing the root issue.”
Harrison said “We could talk all night” about the problem of drug addiction. He also criticized what he called handing out suspended and deferred sentences in cases considered drug-related, which often includes other crimes.
The candidates were asked if their political beliefs will affect how they run the DA’s office.
“Absolutely, you bet,” Harrison said. “It goes to my morals and belief system.
“I believe America does better if you put out more people in the middle class,” Harrison said. He also touted the importance of education and added “It’s a pretty good system we have.”
Sullivan said “We have the role of enforcing the law.” He noted that the legislative branch makes the laws.
“I don’t want to live in a world where I can go in your house and tell you what to do and who to do it with,” Sullivan said. He reiterated that the district attorney’s role is to enforce the law.
Another question regarded the number of defendants who are arrested in Pittsburg County and across the state for failure to pay previously-assessed fees and costs. The candidates were asked if they think the multiple costs the state assesses to defendants as soon as they are charged are justified.
“Justified, yes,” Sullivan said. “That’s what ‘we the people’ have legislated.” He noted that many of the costs have been mandated by the state. “That’s something district attorneys have no power over.”
While Harrison said fines assessed as part of punishment should be paid, he said he thinks it’s absolutely ridiculous how the state expects people with little means to pay such high court-ordered costs and fees.
“Do we think the poorest (people) are going to put money back in the court system?” Harrison said. “It’s never worked and it never will.”
Both candidates were asked what they hope to accomplish if elected.
“I want people in Pittsburg and Haskell counties to be afraid of being prosecuted,” Harrison said. “I want this to be a deterrent effect.
“I want the average person in Pittsburg County to be afraid of going to court,” Harrison continued. “I want them to be fearful.”
Sullivan said he wanted to continue what he calls the current momentum in the office.
“If elected, I hope to continue in the direction we’re going,” Sullivan said.
With the Oklahoma Department of Corrections constantly stating state prisons are overcrowded, what is the best way to address repeat offenders?
“You can’t have a ‘one size fits all,’” Sullivan said. Each case is unique, he said. Sullivan also expressed skepticism at some of the DOC’s numbers.
“Those numbers aren’t necessarily entirely accurate,” he said. “We’ve got to work with our legislature.”
Harrison also expressed his views on the matter.
“We can all agree that the state of Oklahoma has done a poor job of rehabilitation,” Harrison said. “They warehouse people these days.” Harrison said the state needs to adequately fund the Department of Corrections. People are not being punished. Ask crime victims if they are concerned about about prison overcrowding, he said.
In his closing statement, Sullivan said people should vote for him “if you believe experience matters, if you believe experience is important.”
He said the past jury docket with cases prosecuted by his office has resulted in people going to prison.
“We going to continue this momentum,” Sullivan said. “We want to build this momentum.”
Harrison, in closing, said he doesn’t think there’s been a bigger difference in candidates for the office.
“If you’re happy with the way crimes are being prosecuted in Pittsburg County, do not vote for me,” Harrison said. If you want criminals to be fearful of being prosecuted, vote for Terry Harrison, he added.
If people need to be in rehab, if people need to be in drug court, that’s where they should be, Harrison said.
Voters will have an opportunity to vote for their candidate of choice, regardless of political affiliation, during the Nov. 6 General Election.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com