District attorneys are powerful because they make big decisions about people’s lives. They control the fate of the Oregonians in the criminal justice system; and they influence what happens to those people’s families and their communities.
And organization and agencies rarely look over their shoulder or check their work.
But the public has the power to choose the district attorney in their county and to communicate what values they want to see reflected in that office. In each election, we can send a message that we want our district attorneys to chart a better path.
There are other groups that can hold DAs accountable. But their roles are limited, and we cannot depend on them to send the loud and clear message that is needed:
The courts cannot adequately check DA power because the Supreme Court of the United States has granted prosecutors almost absolute immunity against civil rights laws when exercising their discretion. And even when courts find a prosecutor has engaged in misconduct, there is often not much they can do unless it has a big impact on an individual’s case.
The Oregon State Bar makes ethics rules for all lawyers, including district attorneys. Most of the rules govern the relationship between attorneys and clients. Prosecutors don’t have clients like normal lawyers. Their client is the general public. The Oregon State Bar has some of the fewest rules in the country that are specific to the role of the prosecutor, so often their hands are tied too.
Nonetheless, complaints to the state bar are one of the only ways to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct, but the reporting process is flawed. The people most likely to know about ethics violations — defense attorneys and people in the criminal justice system — are reluctant to speak up. They fear retaliation because prosecutors have tremendous power over their lives.
The state legislature has power to regulate the conduct of prosecutors, and it has. However, most of the rules are narrowly focused. For example, the legislature has a rule requiring the prosecutor to turn over certain evidence to the defense team. But when these rules are violated, there are few consequences for the prosecutor.
It’s on us. It’s on us–the public–to hold DAs accountable. We need to use our elections to demand that DAs take a different approach in the criminal justice system. However, in roughly the last 10 years in Oregon nearly 80% of district attorney elections were uncontested and roughly 40% of people who voted in elections decided not to cast a vote for the DA.
In a healthy democracy, no elected official should be guaranteed reelection. The public has the right to engage their officials in robust debate about issues like the state of our criminal justice system.
We can revitalize this democratic process. Remember, they report to YOU!
PLEDGE TO RAISE YOUR VOICE IN THE NEXT DA ELECTION
The Power to Choose.