27 Mar Ben Fu is an ideas man. Are Tulsa County voters ready for that?
Ben Fu has a lot of ideas.
A former assistant district attorney under both Tim Harris and Steve Kunzweiler, the Bartlesville-born son of Chinese immigrants thinks the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office isn’t forward-thinking enough.
And he thinks he’s the man to change that.
“I’m excited about the idea of identifying our problems, and deciding on new ways to measure our success,” Fu said during a recent interview with The Frontier at his law office near 21st Street and Lewis Avenue.
The decision to run didn’t come easy. Aside from the fact that he would face his former boss (and co-worker, Kunzweiler and Fu teamed together for a time under Harris,) in the primary election, Fu said his move to private practice had been a lucrative one.
“In private practice I’ve seen money in my account for the first time,” he said. “I’ve been able to see my kids more. I’m not in trial 10 times a year.”
Fu, 36, could represent a dramatic shift here, considering the role of district attorney has been filled by Harris and Kunzweiler for the last two decades (Harris was first elected in 1998 and served until 2014 when Kunzweiler was elected.)
On Wednesday Fu formally announced his intention to run for DA and unseat Kunzweiler, his former boss and fellow Republican. A Democrat, Jenny Proehl-Day, has filed paperwork stating an intention to run. Like Fu, Proehl-Day is a former Tulsa County prosecutor.
Fu said he sees Tulsa County as an area that’s ready to embrace change. State prisons are crumbling and well beyond capacity and jails are routinely full, he says. His views don’t fit neatly into one political box. Criminal justice reform is needed, but State Question 780, which lessened punishments for drug possession and some property theft crimes “went too far.”
When he discusses the nuts and bolts of what he thinks reform should look like, he talks about cases where a defendant maybe didn’t get a fair shake, or a victim didn’t get true justice. Fu is fond of throwing his hands in the air and saying in mock exasperation, “What are we doing here?”
Change from the inside
Fu’s young, he’s energetic, and he’s ready to throw away anything he doesn’t think is working.
To illustrate that, he points to the “vertical” structure used at the DA’s office today. Previously prosecutors could be assigned a rape case one day, then a murder case, then a robbery case. Then Fu said he pitched Kunzweiler an idea he’d seen being done at some other DA’s offices in the country. (Kunzweiler has previously said vertical prosecution is something he had experience with as a prosecutor elsewhere and that its integration in Tulsa County was a team effort.)
The idea was simple: Why not put prosecutors in teams to focus on specific cases — so one team handles sex crimes and one team handles robberies and one team handles homicides, and so on — to increase efficiency?
“We went from (putting) eight Special Victim Unit cases in front of a jury to 32,” Fu said. “We took the average wait time down from 1 ½ years to where we were trying cases within a year of commission. Cutting that delay time down for victims is huge. Wait time went down almost across the board.”
Hired at the DA’s office by Harris in 2009 after graduating from the University of Oklahoma School of Law, Fu left in 2017 and went into private practice. He said his time at the DA’s office showed him the goodness of the people who work there, but also what he says are the inefficiencies of the criminal justice system.
“What I saw was an office that was very reactionary,” Fu said. “I was interested to see what we could do to lean forward. Can we organize and coordinate investigations with the gang unit? Can we educate and get past barriers with sex crimes? Can we get better at educating our jurors to value people?”
Flipping through an interactive presentation on homicide data on his iPad, Fu talked about the recent elections of young mayors in both Oklahoma City (David Holt) and Tulsa (G.T. Bynum). Both mayors have emphasized data and research as a way to combat long standing societal issues. One of Bynum’s main concerns (life expectancy in north Tulsa residents) dovetails nicely with one of Fu’s: ballooning homicide rates north of Admiral Boulevard.
“I think (the DA’s office) has the ability to act less like a triage unit and more like a research hospital,” Fu said. “I see a lack of leaning forward (at the DA’s office) and I see a county that I think is ready for it.”
Reforming ‘inefficiencies in justice’
Fu believes a district attorney “wields great power” over a criminal justice system in ways the public may not even understand.
“I think there are ways to do some things differently that would ultimately serve the public,” Fu said. He refers to his ideas as “1,000 cuts,” meaning you can’t fix the system with one sweeping gesture, but 1,000 smaller ones might do the trick.
For instance, he talked about a hypothetical case where someone is arrested after breaking into a building and causing damage. A prosecutor could file charges against that person, but Fu’s argument is that the case would be a waste of limited resources.
The court system’s time and funding are “a finite bucket,” Fu believes, and using those resources on cases that can be adjudicated differently might be a waste.
His solution would be to find outside funding for a mediation program. Assuming the victim was willing, a mediator could sit down with both sides and hammer out a restitution agreement. If the suspect met the conditions, no criminal charge would be filed. No need for prosecutors to spend their time on the case, no need for the suspect to hire a defense attorney, no need for time-consuming and expensive court dates and no need for a criminal record.
“There’s a difference between people who are broken and people who just need mending,” Fu said.
Another idea — again, necessitating private funding — is a longevity program for prosecutors and public defenders. It takes a couple of years, Fu said, before an assistant district attorney is really comfortable in a courtroom. Which means law school graduates are being hired and then paid for two years of on-the-job-training.
“Then you get one or two good years out of them and they realize they can do better for themselves elsewhere and they go,” Fu said. “Now you have to start from scratch again.”
The average murder trial, according to Fu, “is sometimes done by two attorneys who have less than seven combined years.”
“That’s bad for the defendant, it’s bad for the victim’s family and it’s bad for the justice system,” he said.
Fu’s plan would be to offer a privately-funded bump in pay after a set amount of time, maybe three years. Then another bump after that.
Suddenly you have better, more experienced attorneys in the courtroom.
“It’s better for everyone,” Fu said. “It’s cheaper to have better attorneys.”