Criminal Justice

The reality of “Justice” in Oregon

This past week, Oregon defense attorneys have been passing around an article from Slate regarding the justice system in Oregon.  The article focuses on statewide statistics regarding disporportionate incarceration and police contacts and puts the blame squarely at the feet of the locally elected prosecutors – pointing the spotlight on Josh Marquis (Clatsop County), Bob Hermann (Washington County) and John Foote (Clackamas County – also the husband of Washington County Judge Suzanne Upton).

In recent years, there has been more attention paid to the way minorities and vulnerable individuals are treated in Oregon’s criminal justice system.  If you have been paying attention, the article from Slate should come as no surprise.

For example, in December, the Oregonian published an article about racial and ethnic disparities in drug possession conviction rates in Oregon.  Foote and Hermann seemed shocked about the disparities in conviction rates and were unable to really pinpoint why the disparities existed.  This should not be a surprise to them.  In 2011, Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration was published in The Prison Journal. The article summarizes study after study showing that minorities are have more police contacts, more convictions and are incarcerated more than non-minority groups.  That Foote and Hermann are only now asking the important questions of how prosecutorial polices could contribute to theses statistics is a positive step, but all deeply concerning that we are in 2016 and this is only now something the District Attorneys are thinking about.

In 2014, Foote and a retired DDA from Multnomah County took umbrage with the Annie E. Casey’s model for juvenile justice and published a report lambasting the system in Multnomah County.  Their thesis was that there was a direct link to the rise of property crimes committed by juveniles and the “hands-off” approach Multnomah County has taken toward juvenile drug offenders.  It seems that Foote and his cohort believe that rather than rehabilitation for juvenile offenders, we as a community, should be heading towards a more punishment-focused model.  This is an outdated model that does not take into account that children are different in a plethora of ways, especially when it comes to brain development.

The fact is that the research and data regarding which criminal justice models work best in order reach the goals of all interested parties (decrease punishment while decreasing recidivism and ensuring community safety) is moving leaps and bounds faster than the local systems are able to handle them.  It is clear that those who represent the interests of the state in Oregon tend to lean toward a more out-dated model that should be reviewed.  However, there is a silver lining – in the last week Foote, Hermann and Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill have agreed to stop prosecuting most Trimet fare evasions, which is a misdemeanor in Oregon.  Let’s hope that this is a sign that smarter criminal justice reform is coming to our state.