Integrity, experience and a plan for change are the keys to some voters’ support in Hughes, Pontotoc and Seminole counties, which are all represented by the same district attorney’s office.
Voters in the three rural counties are set to elect a new district attorney for the first time in 28 years. Twice in the last three decades, the governor selected District 22 residents’ head prosecutor after the previous one retired.
The Nov. 6 election is different. Voters in the three-county district will choose between a long-serving Republican prosecutor whose platform is built on job experience and a young Democratic attorney campaigning on a desire for more criminal justice reform.
Crime a central issue
Jennifer Hooper, a 20-year resident of Seminole, said theft is common in her city. Hooper is voting for Republican Paul Smith largely because of his experience. Smith has worked about 30 years as a prosecutor, and Hooper said he’s doing a good job.
“He’s doing the best that he can to protect the community,” she said.
Smith said he has secured convictions in many challenging cases, including the murder of a 9-year-old boy who went missing near Seminole. The boy’s body was never found.
Smith said he is a strong supporter of drug and mental health court and said the criminal justice system needs some reforms. He wants the state to invest more money in new treatment options, especially for drug users.
Smith does not endorse every change championed by some reform advocates. He said prosecutors and courts need to be able to incarcerate people, even those struggling with addiction and people labeled “nonviolent.”
Drugs and neighborhoods
Hooper thinks Smith is the best person to help her neighborhood solve its drug crisis.
Hooper said her family has called police to their house around three times a year for the last three years. “Because someone’s in our yard not acting right and it’s usually because of drugs.”
People have tried to break into the family’s car, and someone broke into Hooper’s daughter’s home up the street.
“It seems like every night you see something on Facebook where (somebody’s) … car (has) been broken into or something,” Hooper said.
Crime data from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation suggests crime rates are trending down in District 22, but Hooper and other residents said they haven’t noticed any improvement.
Feeling fed up, Hooper’s husband and a friend recently decided to walk the neighborhood at night because they were concerned there weren’t enough police on patrol. Hooper said one night her husband asked a guy on the street what he was doing in the neighborhood.
“And things kind of escalated from there,” she said. “He pulled a gun out and shot at him.”
Nobody was hurt, and Hooper said they didn’t call the police, but the episode rattled her. Hooper’s husband gave up the night patrol. Instead, the couple is going to the polls.
Call for reforms
The other district attorney candidate for the three counties is Josh Edwards, a private attorney who has practiced for eight years and has never worked as a prosecutor.
Ronald Boggs of Ada said Edwards is a good man. Boggs is retired from the Social Security Administration and works part-time for an attorney who offices in the same building as Edwards.
“When (Edwards) comes into work, we sometimes talk politics or current events or something,” Boggs said.
Boggs agrees with Edwards’ position that the state should send fewer people to prison, especially those convicted of nonviolent crimes.
“They’d be better off (if) they’d be kept in the community,” Boggs said. “Become active in the community, get a job and pay their debt to society that way.”
Edwards believes the DA’s office is out of touch with residents in his home in Pontotoc County. He said prosecutors often pursue harsher sentences than residents support.
Edwards has done defense work, civil litigation and family court cases. In all of those areas, he has seen problems caused by addiction. Edwards wants to use more alternatives to prison when prosecuting crimes driven by substance abuse, and he’s campaigning on a plan to start an alternative court for veterans.
Boggs said those positions shouldn’t lead voters to think Edwards will be soft on crime if elected district attorney. Boggs said his mother-in-law’s home was broken into after her recent death and thinks Edwards would take similar crimes seriously.
“I don’t think that he’s saying if someone breaks into your home we’ll let them go free,” he said.
Because of his experience, Boggs said he understands crime victims’ need for justice. He said Edwards recognizes it, too, and will seek appropriate punishments for lawbreakers.