April 20, 2016
PORTLAND, Ore. – Between 2004 and 2014, 78% of Oregon district attorney (DA) races were uncontested, and over 1 million Oregonians did not cast votes in their DA race, reveals a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. District attorneys are rarely challenged even though they have a powerful role in our criminal justice system.
“Oregonians are about a week away from receiving their ballots in the mail and we can tell you one very important elected position most voters are unlikely to influence: Their county district attorney,” said David Rogers, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. “In the past ten years, nearly eight out of every 10 DA elections were over before they began.”
The report also calls for the governor to use reform-minded criteria when appointing interim district attorneys. Nearly half of all the current DAs were initially appointed to their offices by the governor.
Rogers added that long-time district attorneys in Oregon often retire early and deputy district attorneys are overwhelmingly likely to be next in line for the position. The appointment process flies under the radar of the public and allows incumbent DAs to recommend their hand-picked successor to the governor. Once in office, a sitting district attorney is very like to be reelected, so competition is scarce.
Rogers believes the resulting number of unopposed races leads to less voter engagement on criminal justice reform issues.
“We rely on elections to elevate public conversations around important issues,” said Rogers. “The dynamics around district attorney elections and appointments mean that the voters don’t get to influence critical policy concerns about the direction of our criminal justice system.”
The report notes that district attorneys are in the best position to implement criminal justice reforms to curtail state prison growth and spending, but points to the Oregon District Attorneys Association for blocking proposed legislative reforms.
“Instead of being the leaders in criminal justice reform, DAs have largely been roadblocks. Even as crime rates have significantly decreased, prosecutors have increased the rate at which they charge people with felonies,” said Rogers. “Oregon’s goal should be to reduce the prison population, a goal DAs don’t seem to share.”
Rogers said that the public has very little understanding of how powerful district attorneys are and the role they play in the criminal justice system, citing the “atrophied democracy” around DA races.
“District attorneys determine whether someone gets access to treatment or put in jail or prison, whether a youth is charged as an adult, and DAs largely influence the extent of racial disparity in the system” said Rogers. “Voters deserve to know where their elected DAs stand on all of these issues.”
However, voters are engaged when they have a choice. The number of voters who skip making a selection dramatically decreases when DA races are contested, from nearly 40% to only 12%.
Ultimately, the report concludes that Oregon’s criminal justice system is unlikely to be reformed without more competitive district attorney races, gubernatorial appointments that support reform-minded candidates, and increased public engagement with sitting DAs around critical community issues.
The report can be found on the ACLU of Oregon website at www.aclu-or.org/DAreport.