Oregonians get it: Our criminal justice system has problems. Tough on crime strategies like the War on Drugs have failed. We’re putting too many people behind bars for being mentally ill, homeless or addicted to drugs. The current level of incarceration is unsustainable, and we’re sentencing people of color much more harshly. As a result, we’re squandering huge amounts of taxpayer money on prisons and jails — at a time when crucial services and healthcare are being cut. Polls show Oregonians want this to change, and we’ve been trying to change it for years. What’s preventing progress?
District attorneys are mostly unwilling to support evidence-based reforms to change our flawed system. DAs are the most powerful people in the criminal justice system, and many are advocating to maintain the status quo. They’re resisting proven strategies to spend criminal justice resources more wisely and reduce our reliance on incarceration. There is a better way to build safe and healthy communities. But right now, it’s like they’re stuck in the 1990s.
Why? Partly because it’s in their self-interest. They enjoy enormous unchecked power, and that’s hard to give up.
But part of it is our fault, too. We haven’t focused much on district attorney reform. Most voters don’t know who our district attorneys are, what they stand for, or how they’re doing their job. Most district attorney races are uncontested, and DA’s can stay in office for decades regardless of the job they are doing. In a healthy democracy, no elected official should be guaranteed reelection.
So let’s change this! Help us spread the word about the importance of district attorneys, what they do!
How Many People in Oregon Know Who Their DA Is?
% Who Can Name Their DA
Out-of-State DA's drive reform
District Attorneys can also be reform leaders.
For example Dan Satterberg of King County, Wash, was one of the instrumental players in creating the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, or LEAD. This cutting edge program redirects offenders into transformative community services rather than jail and prosecution.
An evaluation of the program shows people participating in it are 58% less likely to be rearrested. And the program costs significantly less than the traditional, 1990s-style criminal justice approach. Other prosecutors have noticed and are applying this approach in their jurisdictions, including a new program in Multnomah County.
Other chief prosecuting attorneys, like John Chisolm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are working to tackle racial disparity in the justice system — and it’s making a difference. The racial disparity within Milwaukee’s system has been cut in half.
The DA should be looking for solutions that are not solely focused on prosecution and punishment.
Voters Need More Information
A recent statewide poll of registered voters in Oregon shows that only 23% of voters know who their county district attorney is.
The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc. of Jacksonville, Florida from April 11 through April 13, 2017. A total of 625 registered Oregon voters were interviewed statewide by telephone.
The margin for error is no more than ±4 percentage points. This means that there is a 95 percent confidence rate.