By david rogers
Budgets are more than just numbers on a page. Agency budgets should be a reflection of the values and vision for the kinds of outcomes we want to see in our communities. But when examining the Multnomah County district attorney budget, the values and vision are murky at best.
Today, we, along with a diverse group of six other Oregon nonprofits (June 2018 update: three more important Oregon nonprofits joined the letter. Read that letter here.), asked the Multnomah County Commissioners to adopt a significantly different framework for the roughly $35 million District Attorney’s Office budget. We fundamentally believe Multnomah County should set a higher bar for the performance measures embedded in the DA budget. The current budget framework is totally insufficient for effectively assessing and guiding the impact of the work and resources that the district attorney office spends annually. The stakes are too high to let this continue.
Thousands of people directly interact with the DA’s office in ways that can fundamentally change their lives, for the better or worse. The policies, practices, and priorities of the DA’s office can be the difference between whether or not young people are held accountable in a way that protects their future life possibilities, whether people of color are treated fairly, whether or not crime victims get access to critical services that help them rebuild their lives, or whether children keep contact and connection with their parents.
There is a growing dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system’s status quo. In many places, our policies and practices have not kept up with the research on what delivers the best public safety outcomes, and patience has run out on a system that continues to treat people of color more harshly.
A $35 million budget for the most powerful criminal justice office in the county needs to at least include meaningful benchmarks to reduce racial disparity, but there is not a single output, outcome, or performance measure within the DA budget that explicitly focuses on reducing racial disparity or increasing equity and inclusion. Instead, the 2019 fiscal year budget largely measures the total number of criminal cases reviewed, issued, and resolved.
Prosecutors shouldn’t be judged by the number of cases processed but on the quality of outcomes they achieve, and this budget tells us very little about how the DA’s office is effectively contributing to building safe and healthy communities for all Multnomah County residents.
As you can read in the joint organizational advocacy letter and the in-depth analysis we sent county commissioners, there are a range of areas where the DA’s office could make important strides in strengthening performance measures to:
Address racial disparities
Improve the treatment of youth in the justice system
Increase workforce diversity
Support crime victims
Improve staff training
Demonstrate the cost benefit of DA practices
Although thinking about budgets might make you feel sleepy, wake up if you are interested in criminal justice reform. Because changing the budget helps change the goals and expected outcomes for the DA office. This is a powerful way to help leverage real change within the system.
Since the county commissioners are close to finishing the budgeting process for this year, it will be challenging to make these kind fundamental changes now. But we are asking the board to commit to shifting the DA budget performance measures over time and to ensure that, at least next year, there will be a new set of metrics for the DA’s budget.