The American Civil Liberties Union began a national campaign titled “They Report to You” designed to help elect different people to the office of district attorney across America.
The point of the clever and well-designed ads is that prosecutors are 1) unknown to their constituents 2) omnipotent in the justice system 3) unaccountable and 4) the gunk that prevents social justice.
As with most things, there is a little truth there. In most of the country voters have no idea who their elected DA is. That has not been the case at any time in the almost quarter century I have been the district attorney of Clatsop County. From my first contested race to the many controversies into which I have inserted myself in the ensuing two decades, some voters might not agree with me, but they have never had to look far to find out my viewpoint or engage me in a discussion.
What about the other claims? If being DA was such a great job and I have so much power, one would guess people would be chomping at my ankles to wrest the job from me?
In another aspect, the ACLU is correct, like judges and congresspeople, most people don’t pay enough attention to who is in office.
As a colleague says, “the most important person in the justice system is whoever has control over you at a given point … when being arrested it’s the police officer, when charged it is the DA, when being judged it’s your neighbors/jurors, and when being sentenced it’s the judge.”
Of course as comedian Chris Rock famously said to avoid being hassled, “Obey the Law!” Most people manage to get through life without stealing their neighbors’ cars, breaking into their houses or molesting their children.
The ACLU video claims that a minor shoplifting in 1980 would be “a felony today” — impliedly because of nefarious lobbying by people like me. That is just nonsense. In 1980, it was a felony to steal something worth $150. Today you’d have to steal something worth at least $1,000. In other ads, the ACLU shows a cartoon DA furtively trashing evidence into the garbage.
This kind of demonization is one of things degrading political discourse in America. It’s no better for an august organization like the ACLU to make such claims as it is for the current president to tell outrageous stories he’s told by his core of dedicated zealots. The belief that one possesses the only way to redemption is an extremely dangerous concept.
The district attorney’s job is to represent the people of the state of Oregon in all criminal proceedings. That means making sure people are treated fairly and equally. That certain people, or groups of people are neither indulged or targeted. It means that the relatively scarce resources of the justice system are made to work for justice when the social contract is violated in the worst ways possible — the molestation of a child, a drunken driver injuring or killing a passer-by, or, in the worst circumstances, a murder.
The measure of a prosecutor is not how well-loved they are by the people they are prosecuting, but by the community and the people who find themselves victims of crime. Often the former find themselves the latter in the course of a short period of time. As my late father was fond of quoting Italian anti-fascist writer Ignazio Silone, “Never make fun of a man in jail.”
I have never forgotten that I serve at the pleasure of the voters of Clatsop County.
Joshua Marquis is the Clatsop County district attorney.