In journalism, research and trial law, you learn that the questions asked are as important, sometimes more so, than the answers. Recent articles in The Daily Astorian have discussed a state program called “justice reinvestment” without asking some pertinent questions.
One might assume from some of the glossy graphs from Salem that Clatsop County is sending a stunningly high percentage of people to prison.
A deeper dive shows otherwise. On a statewide average, 24% of felons were sent to prison last year following conviction. In Clatsop County, that rate was 21%. Nineteen Oregon counties send felons to prison following conviction at a higher rate than does Clatsop County.
Where Clatsop County’s prosecutors and judges are tougher is in a smaller set of cases known as downward departures. In these cases my office will recommend giving the offender a second (and often third, fourth or fifth) chance by agreeing to probation — if the offender will agree to serve a set number of months in prison (generally less than 24) should a judge determine their probation is not properly fulfilled.
Clatsop County sends 14% of its felons to prison in this manner, a rate still lower than four other counties, including the most populous, Multnomah.
Judges are the only ones who can send people to prison and are only mandated to send felons to prison for first-degree Measure 11 crimes such as murder, manslaughter, sexual abuse in the first degree, or rape in the first degree. In 2008, prosecutors and Portland-area legislators formed an unusual alliance to pass a more sensible measure to beat out Measure 61, which would have also mandated prison terms for many first-time burglars and car thieves. Measure 57 was supported by almost all of the state’s elected district attorney’s, including myself.
The Legislature’s response? They suspended Measure 57 at their next regular session, claiming it would cost too many prison beds. Then in 2013, they hammered out the justice reinvestment plan, again rolling back portions of the measure. (Several legislators, like our own state Sen. Betsy Johnson, did not support crossing the voters.) In theory, money that would not be spent on state prison beds for second-time home burglars or four-time identity thieves, would be diverted to the counties for local programs.
But justice reinvestment creates a negative bounty, essentially paying parts of the justice system to not send repeat property offenders and drug dealers to prison.
Clatsop County felons often chalk up four or five violations before a judge says “enough” and revokes their probation. Many felons struggle with addiction issues. Efforts are made through Drug Court and Mental Health Court, in which my office participates, to assist these people, allowing them multiple fails.
Importantly, Salem is famous for pushing unfunded mandates on local governments. The justice reinvestment dollars are likely to expire or simply dry up in a couple of years.
Only a judge can decide to send a felon to prison. We are fortunate that our three Circuit Court judges make good decisions.
So, when looking at the data proffered by Salem, consider these questions:
• How robust are the local Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police, and local agencies? In Clatsop County, they all do excellent work. But the more felons they catch, the more will be prosecuted. And, by the way, the fewer honest citizens will become victims of crime.
• Is there a local jail with available beds that could take some felons who might otherwise be sent to the state prison? Not in Clatsop County.
• Does the county have a significant tourist trade, or what we legally call “transient population?” The Daily Astorian reported recently that 42% of driving under the influence of intoxicants defendants did not live in Clatsop County.
My office carefully evaluates each case — not based on what the data will show at the end of the year, and hoping to “come up with good numbers.” We evaluate each case person by person, considering both the defendant and the victims, and the resources available, and make decisions based on public safety.
Joshua Marquis is the Clatsop County district attorney.