Prosecutor argues justice system reforms misguided

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Brian Surber is a law enforcement professional who is convinced that proponents of reforms to Oklahoma’s criminal justice system have used false arguments to persuade voters there is a crisis that needs to be addressed.

Surber, 50, who has worked as a drug enforcement officer and a prosecutor, details his views in a new book, “Injustice for All: The (Familiar) Fallacies of Criminal justice Reform.” The book became available last Saturday from and other sources. He said the cost of a paperback will be $14.99 and the digital edition will be $8.99.

“While I certainly have my opinions, I wanted people to be persuaded by the evidence,” Surber said in a news release about his book. “That’s why the book has over 300 citations to studies, reports, and other facts.”

A majority of Oklahoma voters in November 2016 voted in favor of State Question 780, a landmark measure that mandated changing simple possession of illegal drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. The measure also changed the threshold value for a property crime felony from $500 to $1,000. SQ 780 passed by slightly more than 235,000 votes. The intent was to save money on incarceration and offer offenders more opportunities for drug and mental health treatment, job training and education.

In May 2019, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1269 into law, making SQ 780 retroactive and providing hundreds of convicts the opportunity to wipe felony convictions off their records.

In November 2020, however, a majority of Oklahoma voters rejected State Question 805, which was the latest criminal justice reform measure presented to them. SQ 805 would, if adopted, have prevented state prosecutors from using previous felony convictions classified as “nonviolent” to enhance the sentence of a defendant for a new “nonviolent” offense. The margin by which the measure was defeated was slightly more than 335,000 votes.

Surber, whose father owns a ranch in the Pawhuska area, has family ties to Osage County. He spoke with the Journal-Capital about his book during a visit last week to the ranch to get a little work done there. He recalled that his uncle, Dick Surber, used to contribute letters to the editor to the Journal-Capital under a pen name.

“So, we are at a point where the threat is not just the offenders themselves, but the laws that enable them to thrive,” Surber said, when asked what advice he gives to citizens about protecting their interests. “The antidote to all of the false narratives is quite simply truth. So, I feel that those of us in law enforcement need to relay the reality of law enforcement to the good citizens we are sworn to protect.”

He suggested Oklahoma residents should challenge ideas promoted regarding the overhaul of the criminal justice system.

“If an advocacy group was telling ranchers how to raise cattle, and those intellectuals had never so much as ridden a horse or fed a cow, we might be suspect of both their motives and credentials,” Surber said. “That is exactly how these reform movements are being driven, and law enforcement has been excluded from the discussions – we have facts inconvenient to the narratives seeking validation.”

Surber worked as an agent for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics before becoming a prosecutor. He is currently first assistant district attorney for the state’s 12th Judicial District, which includes Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties. He commented in a news release about his book that he became “frustrated with the narrative” as justice system reform efforts began to sweep through Oklahoma and other parts of the nation.

Surber sees his book as a source of information about the successes of law enforcement in protecting communities, but also as an account of how those successes are now threatened by justice system reforms.

Surber said in his news release that he drew inspiration for the writing of his book from a reading of F.A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” published in 1944, which dealt with the dangers caused by government central planning of economic activity. Surber said Hayek’s description of the use of propaganda to promote socialism resonated with him.

“I noticed the identical playbook being used to promote criminal justice reform,” he said in his release. “A manufactured crisis, giving new meanings to old words, visible benefactors with invisible victims, all of which is cloaked in ‘compassion.’”

Surber has prosecuted thousands of illegal drug cases, and is the author of the “Oklahoma Drug Prosecutor’s Desk Reference.” He said that he has drafted resources for law enforcement regarding the changes that have been made in Oklahoma statutory law.