Tulsa County District Attorney candidates discuss issues with hours to go before election

TULSA - As the primary election draws near, candidates to replace Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris make their case on issues important to the race.

Steve Kunzweiler, chief of criminal prosecution for the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office, hopes to take over for a man with whom he's worked since 2002.

"I actually was the first assistant up in Washington County in Bartlesville and told my wife I wanted to come for Mr. Harris. His passion wanting to prosecute child abuse cases was my passion," Kunzweiler said.

That passion has led to a 24-year career in criminal prosecution, sending hundreds of convicted criminals to prison for violent crimes.

Kunzweiler says the role of district attorney is squarely about public safety.

"The focus obviously has to be on public safety, and I think any prosecutor would tell you that. That's what the public expects you to do is focus on the things that will keep our community safe," he said.

Hoping to assume that role instead of Kunzweiler is Oklahoma House Majority Leader State Rep. Fred Jordan, R-Tulsa.

Jordan and Kunzweiler agree on a number of issues, but their paths to the ballot differ.

Jordan, in addition to serving in his elected position in Oklahoma City, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and attorney who spent time working at the American detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Fantastic opportunity for a young lawyer. Helped draft the rules of engagement that they were actually using there in the prison and oversee the things that were going on there," Jordan said.

Jordan says electing him over Kunzweiler is an opportunity to break away from the establishment at the district attorney's office and bring new ideas.

"I'm going to look at the office from top to bottom, see what the management structure is, see what we can do to increase efficiencies in the office and really make sure that we are processing the cases as fast as we can but as judiciously as we can," he said.

Both Kunzweiler and Jordan are strong proponents of the district attorney's office becoming more involved in the local schools.

Jordan says he'd like to see the office in the schools, working with law enforcement and educators to teach children an understanding of choices and consequences.

Kunzweiler says his approach would be to have prosecutors adopt schools in Tulsa and spend time with students.

Both agree early access to positive role models can go a long way in preventing crime. They also say it's a good way to reduce jail overcrowding.

On the issue of jail overcrowding, Kunzweiler says the office he's worked in has been at the forefront of alternative courts and sentencing for non-violent offenders.

"The people who keep ringing the bell are people who have drug addiction issues and the legislature has never responded. The law continues to remain the same, and so we've had to be adaptive and we've created these alternative court programs," Kunzweiler said.

Like his opponent, Jordan says alternative courts, whether veterans, drug, DUI or alternative treatment programs like women in recovery, can work to reduce overcrowding.

"If we can work with them and find ways to treat them, we can reduce recidivism while at the same time getting the folks the treatment that they need and getting them back into society," Jordan said.

When it comes to plea bargaining, a necessary tool prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges use to tackle tremendous case loads, Jordan says he faces deals by asking what the best scenario is under which justice is served depending on the case.

Jordan said, "In a plea, you're going to guarantee that a person is going to pay for the crime that they have committed."

Kunzweiler says his approach to plea bargaining has always been about setting a minimum level of punishment.

"There are always going to be cases that you have to be able to draw the line and say, 'I'm not going to go below this,' and we've drawn that line on a lot of cases," he said.

On the issue of the death penalty, which has become highly publicized and scrutinized after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett , both Kunzweiler and Jordan say they agree with the state's decision to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death. Both also say they're not swayed to believe that capital punishment needs to be removed and argue it is a deterrent.

While three candidates will appear on Tuesday's ballot, just Kunzweiler and Jordan remain in the race after State. Sen. Brian Crain dropped out due a conflict of interest regarding a pay increase for district attorneys in the state.

Kunzweiler filed a petition a little more than a week before the primary stating that Jordan should also drop out for the same reason. While Jordan calls the move a distraction from the race, Kunzweiler says he's upholding the constitution.

There's almost no chance that the case will be decided before Tuesday's primary.

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