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American News Jan 27, 2022 1:59 AM EST

Portland deputy DAs believe more should be done to create equitable outcomes in criminal justice system: survey

42.6 percent of respondents "strongly agree" with the belief that prosecutors should work to reduce "the overrepresentation of people of color in the justice system," while almost half of those surveyed "strongly agree" that prosecutors should reduce "racial disparities in case outcomes."

Portland deputy DAs believe more should be done to create equitable outcomes in criminal justice system: survey
Mia Cathell The Post Millennial

The Multnomah County District Attorney's office announced Tuesday that a report has been released on survey data results collected from dozens of deputy district attorneys serving under Portland's chief prosecutor Mike Schmidt.

The office's "Prosecutor Attitudes, Perspectives, and Priorities" survey—conducted last year both as an anonymous written survey and through one-on-one interviews—provides qualitative and quantitative data about how MCDA's prosecutors think about "success, racial justice, community engagement, and the use of scientific knowledge" as they're reviewing and prosecuting criminal cases in the county.

42.6 percent of respondents "strongly agree" with the belief that prosecutors should work to reduce "the overrepresentation of people of color in the justice system," according to the "Perceptions of Race" table in the report.

Almost half of those surveyed "strongly agree" that prosecutors should reduce "racial disparities in case outcomes," a large 48.9 percent with 38.3 percent agreeing as well. 39.1 percent believe the office "needs to be more racially diverse."

Source: "Prosecutor Attitudes, Perspectives, and Priorities" survey

The report's findings from the past year "light the way for several avenues to re-envision" the county prosecution's role in "building a more just and effective office," Schmidt's office states via the MCDA press release published Tuesday.

Select findings from the prosecutorial interviews highlight "shifting priorities" such as "using a racial equity lens" to "better meet the overall goal of achieving justice" and "striving for racial equity" to achieve "racially equitable outcomes."

"Prosecutors overwhelmingly agreed that they should be involved in reducing disparities and the disproportionate impact of crime on people and communities of color," according to the extensive 32-page report's discoveries.

The fifth topic of the report, "Racial/Ethnic Disparities in the CJ [Criminal Justice] System," stresses "the importance of using a racial equity lens in prosecution."

"When thinking about defendants, this involves considering the root causes of criminal behavior (e.g., disproportionate effects of poverty), historical racism, and the longterm impacts that policing and incarceration have had on communities of color," the racial equity theme outlines under Topic Five of the report. "It also involves appreciating that a 'one size fits all' response is unlikely to affect every defendant in the same way (e.g., the importance of culturally specific treatment options), and may even have a disproportionate effect on some defendants (e.g., those who might face threats to their immigration status or deportation risks)."

Prosecutors also discussed "crime type over-representation (i.e., that racial minorities are overrepresented in specific types of crime), which is intertwined in discussions of disparities, equity, and equality," the topic elucidates.

Another theme under the topic touches on "balancing equity and equality" in prosecutorial decision-making. "Prosecutors overwhelmingly agree that they should be working to reduce racial disparities in case outcomes (i.e., ensuring equal treatment for all defendants)," according to the report's findings.

"Prosecutors are not shy about discussing historical racism or structural inequalities," the survey found, but the respondents were not sure whether or not "that knowledge should factor" into charging and sentencing decisions. Meanwhile others cited constitutional issues, under the US Constitution and the Oregon state Constitution, with treating defendants "equitably, as opposed to equally."

The survey's respondents had different opinions about whether the MCDA's office, or the prosecutorial profession at-large, should take "a more proactive" approach—considering issues stemming from systemic racism—versus "reactive" approach—charging crimes when appropriate regardless of race—to prosecution.

There was general agreement among respondents that prosecutors should work to reduce overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors are "cognizant of the importance of increasing diversity in the office," which "should remain one of the office's main goals," another Topic Five theme states," for "better reflecting the community" and "increasing the diversity of lived experiences in the office." The interview responses also underscore the office's objective to ensure that "conversations about race are welcomed and encouraged."

"We have to make sure that we are reflecting [equity practices] by recruitment and retention of communities of color in our office. Because I think that is how you measure success..." one of the prosecutors voiced, per the report.

The survey is touted as "a key touchstone" to MCDA's larger Prosecutorial Performance Indicators (PPI) project in partnership with Florida International University and Loyola University of Chicago, the press release reads, noting that Schmidt's office joins other district attorney's offices throughout the country "taking the initiative to lead the way in data transparency through PPIs."

Schmidt states in the report's forward that the MCDA's office is "building a new vision of justice based on the ideals of effective, just, and fair prosecution."

"Justice should not be measured in arrests, prison sentences or fines," Schmidt goes on to declare, further asserting: "In fact, those measures set up the wrong incentives and reinforce punishment over accountability and healing."

Schmidt adds that the MCDA's office is striving to use data and research toward building "healthier and safer communities" in which individuals who have come in contact with office are "treated fairly and equitably irrespective of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, or income."

"This work starts by looking within, examining our own contributions to justice and fairness," Schmidt states, calling the move "a moment of reset."

The aforementioned PPI project aims to provide "new measures of prosecutorial success and ameliorate racial and ethnic disparities that can emerge from criminal case processing," Schmidt's office declares. The partnership is funded through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, which Multnomah County has been part of since the inception of the initiative.

"We need to remember that as prosecutors we hold enormous power over people’s lives and freedoms," Schmidt expresses in the report's forward. "Therefore, it is our obligation that the exercise of discretion maximizes the good for the communities we serve. The benefits of research is precisely that: it forces us to step away from assembly line case processing and look at the bigger picture about how our cumulative decisions heal or harm defendants, victims, and their families."

The MCDA's office maintains that the matter of data transparency has been among the district attorney's "top priorities" since taking office in January 2021, developing and publishing the Protest Case and Gun Violence Case data dashboards within Scdmidt's first year as the elected district attorney.

Scmidt's office also announced that the survey's report is the first of a number of data sets that will be made available for public view in 2022 through MCDA's PPI project and other data transparency efforts, including a hate crimes dashboard.

"The work to end racial disparities in the criminal justice system must start by looking in the mirror and analyzing our own core values and beliefs that guide decision making, and moreover, making those things known to the communities we serve," Schmidt says via press statement in Tuesday's official memo.

A random sample of 21 deputy district attorneys gave in-depth interviews, which took place over a three-week period back in April 2021, while 51 colleagues supplemented data over an online platform. The average amount of experience prosecutors carry who participated in the 2021 survey was 10.3 years.

The study was performed by Portland State University crimonology and criminal justice assistant professor Dr. Kelsey Henderson, who conducts research on the Americans courts, focusing on decision-making within the legal system.

Schmidt, who admitted he's "old buddies" with an Antifa militant, has rejected over hundreds of riot-related cases since George Floyd's death in the "interest of justice," according to the MCDA's protest database covering the Black Lives Matter-Antifa riots and mass demonstrations gripping Portland since May 2020.

After entering office, Schmidt launched a policy of decriminalizing a list of protest and riot offences for suspects charged over the BLM-Antifa civil unrest.

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