Dozens of people joined Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann for a virtual conversation and reflection on the past year with Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.
The monthly East County Issues Forum, regularly features local guests on a wide range of topics that specifically impact East Multnomah County, said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who opened the virtual meeting Thursday, Sept. 16.
“But while we do focus on East County, I also know that many of the issues we discuss are widespread throughout the county,’’ Stegmann said. “I thought it was really important for us to have a community conversation about justice and justice reform.
“I invited DA Schmidt here to discuss how we can better examine the challenges and solutions that will result in better outcomes for our community.”
Aug. 1 marked the one-year anniversary of Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s tenure in office. He was elected with 77 percent of the vote, “and that was for major reform in the criminal justice system,” he told guests.
Schmidt was appointed to the office five months earlier than expected with the early resignation of his predecessor. His tenure launched amid a once-in-century-pandemic and on the 70th day of widespread protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
“In general, we have been confronted with some of the most acute challenges of our time in the last year and a half. In many ways the agenda for my first year was set for me through the presence of a global pandemic and a historic call for racial justice, “said Schmidt.
“One year after being the district attorney, I deployed our criminal justice system strategically and efficiently by drawing a bright line — seeking justice for the most violent crime while making reforms in real time that reflect our values and the equitable future we want for our county,” he continued. “We had to hold steadfast to the values and reforms our community asked for when they elected me.”
Schmidt says he is proud of the progress his office has made to better reflect the people in the communities they serve. The DA’s office continues to make strides to increase the diversity of staff in his agency, and the executive team is the most diverse that the office has ever been in its history, he said.
Ernie Warren, founder of one of the first Black-owned defense law firms, dissolved his practice to work for the District Attorney’s Office Justice Integrity Unit.
“A defense attorney dissolving his practice to come work at a prosecutor’s office almost never happens, no less one with as much experience and acumen for racial equity as Ernie has, ‘’ said Schmidt.
Schmidt shared that over the last year, he has pursued indictments against officers who have broken the law and proactively investigated cases that would have never come across his desk otherwise. But sometimes the outcomes of those investigations don’t meet the community’s desires.
“I don’t always make friends, but the law doesn’t work that way and that’s a good thing. At the end of the day, people want to feel safe,” said Schmidt, “And they can’t when one person is treated differently. That’s a part of restoring trust too.”
Trust in the criminal justice system and public safety are directly correlated, stressed Schmidt.
Last, said Schmidt, the traditional criminal justice processes fail so many people, including victims and defendants, but we see incredible outcomes through the use of restorative justice practices, an evidence-based philosophy that builds higher victim satisfaction and lower recidivism rates or re-occurrence of crime.
When a crime is committed against a victim there’s a lot of natural questions that come up in nearly every case: “Why me, why now? Will this happen again to me and my family?”
The current system doesn’t provide opportunities for real answers to these questions, often distancing people — particularly perpetrators of crime — from vulnerability and humility. What drives violence on an individual level is shame, isolation and exposure to violence, he said.
Yet, the typical response to crime and violence is to put someone in an environment that exposes them to even more violence. The goal of our system has to be rehabilitation through restorative justice. Schmidt said that he is fighting to dramatically expand restorative justice programs in the county.
The DA’s office faces deep challenges, Schmidt said, including:
- Prosecutors with caseload sizes, like never before.
- The pandemic has backed up the courts, making it more difficult to resolve cases.
- While low-level crime has gone down, violent crime has gone up.
- We have half the attorneys compared to jurisdictions with similar populations.
But we’re rising to challenges, he said.
“We must continue to live together and lift all boats and weather the next storm better than the last.”
The following is a transcript of selected questions and answers from the event. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity:
Commissioner Lori Stegmann: Aug. 1 marked your first year in office as Multnomah County’s District Attorney. As we all know, you came into office during a really tumultuous and historic time, especially around racial justice. Can you talk about what that experience has been like and share with us what your office has done in response?
District Attorney Mike Schmidt: I was elected May 19. George Floyd was murdered on the 26th of May. The community took to the streets saying we needed change. Within days the police chief had resigned. The [then] district attorney announced he would leave office early. And the governor called me and said would you be willing to come in five months ahead of time?
I remember August 4th well. We were already on day 70 of nightly protests. I had 550 cases on my desk, the vast majority of which involved being arrested with no kind of violence or property destruction whatsoever. So immediately we had to make a decision. How are we going to allocate our resources? So what we did was say we’re going to look at cases where people are actually doing damage and causing harm. We’re going to focus on those.
Where people on the streets tell us we need to reconsider how we’re doing things in the criminal justice system, we need to err on the listening side.
LS: We talked about your Justice Integrity Unit, which I’m so excited about. This is a new unit for your office. Can you share more about that effort and why it’s particularly important now?
MS: Hearing from the community about wanting racial justice and reckoning for things the criminal justice system has been doing for decades, we needed to look backwards. We’re always trying to fix things and do better in the future, but we can’t forget where we came from and if there are things we can fix in the past.
The Justice Integrity Unit is that. It’s two attorneys in this office that will look at old convictions to make sure we got them right. And sometimes even with the best of intentions, we can make mistakes. This will give us attorneys who are dedicated to making sure if we made a mistake, we can go back and fix it. One of the worst things that can happen is someone who is innocent who is convicted of a crime.
From there, we also went and worked in the legislature to pass Senate Bill 819. That senate bill gives DAs the power not only to sentence people prospectively, but to look back at the sentences we’ve already passed and consider whether they still make sense for public safety and are still in the interest of justice.
For example, people have reached out to me regularly, citing old felony convictions that can’t be taken off their record, preventing them from attending high school sports that their kids take part in. People who have had no criminal justice involvement in 10, 15 or sometimes 20 years, but can’t move on with their lives because of expungement laws. We can now, with this re-sentencing tool, look back at those convictions and say, you know what, you’re no longer a threat to public safety and this isn’t serving anyone’s interest in society.
Another example would be youth. A couple of years ago, the legislature decided juveniles should no longer be automatically tried as adults. That’s a change that happened in 2019, when there were many youth and juveniles tried as adults. So now we use this law to look back and say what happened since your sentencing and should we consider what it would be like if you were sentenced today instead of several years ago, and change some of those sentences.
If we’re talking about building trust to recognize that the criminal justice system has harmed communities, especially communities of color, we can’t only look at fixing things prospectively. We also have to look back at what we’ve done in the past.
LS: In East County, and throughout Multnomah County, we have seen an increase in gun-related violence. The work that I’ve supported in my office has focused on prevention and intervention, in addition to suppression. Can you share with us your perspective and talk about the downstream suppression efforts and what you’d like to see implemented upstream that could address root causes of violence?
MS: Portland and Multnomah County are historically safe communities, but we’re experiencing violent crime at levels we have not seen in decades. It’s not just us. It’s happening across the country. Regardless of whether you’re in a red district or blue district, we’re seeing increases as more guns are flooding the streets.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. We need to get upstream. We need to make investments. We just launched a dashboard on our website. If you look at where the gun cases are happening and you overlay it with something that you’ve done, Commissioner, which is looking at the census tracts in Multnomah County, where we see poverty and environment pollution, you see they line up almost precisely.
We know we need to make investments in those communities. We need to do the things we can do that young people hope for — opportunities and jobs and alternatives to carrying a gun.
When it gets to us, we’re too late. That’s a failure...
To me, there’s no greater public safety priority than investigating those cases, making arrests, prosecutions and convictions. To hold people accountable, but also just to stop the bleeding and get people who will shoot up our community off the streets. That doesn’t mean throw away the key and lock them up forever, but we need to stop what’s happening now. That means getting guns and people using them off the streets.
Then we talk about what programs and services that might be available for some people. We’re looking at cases to see if we can craft resolutions that will help reinforce public safety.
We’re seeing unprecedented high caseloads.… It’s up over 450 percent compared to where we were in 2019. We’re making a case. We’re meeting on a weekly basis, sharing information — all the way from Portland Police, Gresham Police, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and federal agents — and treating this like the pressing issue it is for our community.
LS: Some business owners have expressed concern that if there was an individual experiencing a crisis at their business, and they’ve called public safety, at what point can a person be “trespassed”? Sometimes there are people who won’t leave the premises or that leave it and continually come back.
MS: The tools in the tool belt can be limited, especially when it comes to mental illness. But the tool for business owners is to call the police — to have the person informed that they’re trespassed. And hopefully, and I know our police officers do this regularly, they’re trained at de-escalating situations. They want to de-escalate, but sometimes that’s not possible, sometimes an arrest has to happen. Our hope, if there is an arrest and a police report is submitted, we screen that. And If there are resources and services that we can connect people to, we try to do that. In an ideal world, somebody who can actually connect them to resources right away would be available.
We’re not there yet. That’s not what we have, but looking at investing in things like Portland Street Response, or some of the Multnomah County resources, connecting them to mental health. But if that doesn’t work, really, all we’re left with is to call the police and go through the traditional route.
LS: Some business owners are expressing frustration that because those folks are not charged, there’s no accountability that prevents them from coming back at a future date to that location. Some business owners feel that if maybe the DA’s office isn’t pressing charges, that there’s no accountability. Can you talk about how that’s handled in your office?
MS: We evaluate every single case when it comes in individually. There’s no blanket policy on charging trespassing in our office. We’re going to charge trespasses and we’ll look at people for chronic issues. We’ll charge those cases. But unfortunately, the resolution of those cases is probably not going to change that person’s behavior very much. Criminal trespass is a misdemeanor conviction. And if you’re dealing with a mental health issue, having a misdemeanor on your record is not a deterrent from doing it in the future.
Even jail days are not a deterrent for doing it again. The answer to this issue is to get people connected to treatment so they can stabilize… That’s how we’re going to fix these issues. We look at those cases where we have the evidence we need, where we can prove them. And especially when we are in a resource-constrained environment — especially where we see people who are consistently doing and engaging in that behavior and there’s nothing changing the behavior — we bring changes in those cases.
LS: What are your thoughts about how we can do better regarding behavioral health and drug and alcohol treatment? How can we approach this work better?
MS: We’re in an historic moment where people are rethinking what justice means. We know that giving people convictions and setting them up with fines and fees, even jail, can take people out of work and other things and prevent them from future jobs. We need to look at how we do not create additional barriers for people to be successful.
I talked to a woman who was homeless from 2000 to 2009. She had 20 or 30 convictions on her record. And the fines and fees had stacked up to the tens of thousands of dollars.
She had been clean and sober since 2009. She was housed and put her life back on track. The thing that was preventing her from getting jobs and moving on with her life — she wanted to be a counselor for drug and alcohol treatment — but she couldn’t get those certifications because of old convictions, fines and fees that prevented her from doing that.
The convictions, the fines and fees, and the jail — none of that changed her behavior. What ultimately changed her life was Central City Concern. They reached out with resources. But even after she did all that work, 10 years later, it was the old fines and fees and punishments ... that were now preventing her from moving on with her life.
We have to be mindful of the impacts of the decisions we are making and how we can set people up for future failure. Helping people get back on the right track is good for public safety.