Department of Community Justice Director Erika Preuitt to retire after 30 years “focused on people”

April 18, 2024

Erika Preuitt, Director of Community Justice at Multnomah County.

Decades before she announced her May 1 retirement as Director of the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, Erika Preuitt was a young woman in Spokane, Washington, standing at a crossroads.

Recently graduated from Gonzaga University, the young Preuitt remained in Spokane, parlaying her flair for fashion into a sales job for Nordstrom. She was good at it, but it wasn’t her passion, and she quit after a year.

“Like, what do I do in the world?” Preuitt recalled thinking. And not for the first or last time, she heeded advice from her mother. 

“The thing that kept running through my head was my mom's message to always strive to be more than 100%,” Preuitt said. “And at the same time, I was exploring volunteer opportunities to follow my heart, which was to be focused on people.”

Would she take a Peace Corps assignment in Cameroon? Or would she take  an offer to serve as a youth and family program coordinator for a nonprofit in Spokane?

Preuitt chose her local community. And a few years later, that choice led her back to her hometown, Portland, where family roots run deep along with her devotion to the people of Multnomah County and, in particular, its Black community. There, Preuitt embarked on a career in County government, defined by hard but rewarding work in the justice system and, later, being a nationally recognized leader in her field.

“Erika has brought her whole self to this work every single day at Multnomah County,’’ said Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. “That commitment and authenticity led to an exemplary career that centers around thinking of the safety of families, the professionalism of County parole and probation staff, and developing more community-wide resilience. I am so grateful for her years of leadership, especially because of what it has meant to those we serve and the improvement of our justice system as a whole.”

Portland roots

Preuitt's father, musician Norman Sylvester.
Preuitt's father, musician Norman Sylvester.

Preuitt’s family history is entwined with the story of Portland’s Black community. Her relatives fell victim to the 1948 Vanport Flood. The family of her father, blues guitarist and 2014 Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee Norman Sylvester, had migrated from Louisiana to work in the shipyards.

“When I came back to Portland, I also wanted to come back and strengthen the community where I lived,” Preuitt said. “I was born and raised in North and Northeast Portland. Mom was a single mom and owned a home. My dad was always there for us, a man of faith who taught me to really rely on something bigger than myself.”

In 1973 Preuitt’s mother, Carmen Sylvester, became the first Black woman to serve as a Portland police officer, and was one of the first five women to work street patrols. She persisted in the face of racism and sexism from the public and within the ranks. And after her long career, Portland Community College established a criminal justice scholarship in her name

Norman and Carmen divorced when Erika was 5 years old. Carmen, a single mother stretching her salary as a police officer, sent Erika and her three sisters to Holy Redeemer School and St. Mary’s Academy.

Preuitt's mother, Carmen Sylvester.
Preuitt's mother, Carmen Sylvester.

“She was the quintessential example of perseverance and how you work through challenges and aspire to excellence. As a single mom, she had very clear goals as she was raising us,” Preuitt remembered. “And I saw her live out the goals and the dreams that she had for us and how she invested in us and the resources that she gave us. She told me that, as a woman and particularly as a Black woman, I was going to have to really strive harder, work harder, in order to just be able to thrive in our community. And I took that to heart.”

Preuitt couldn’t match the affluence of many of her classmates, but “I did have my brain and I did have my will. And so I just started to strive there.” She was a National Honor Society member, and played volleyball, earning a scholarship to Gonzaga in Spokane.

In Spokane, Preuitt made a point to seek out and build relationships among the city’s Black community. That led to her position at what’s now called the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, as well as a place on the board of YWCA Spokane. Both positions prepared Preuitt for her work at Multnomah County once the pull of her family led her back to Portland.

Preuitt wanted “to work with people in communities that are vulnerable, at risk, have passion for community building, and are an integral part of the fiber of the community. I was so honored to do this work.”

Joining Multnomah County in a period of change

Erika Preuitt, rear right, at her 1994 swearing in.
Erika Preuitt, rear right, at her 1994 swearing in.

Back in Portland, Preuitt was considering another nonprofit job when her mom offered more sage advice to consider public service.

“I said, ‘OK, Mom’ and started looking at government work,” Preuitt recalled. 

In 1994, the 27-year-old Preuitt found an opening for a Parole-Probation Officer position. She knew she didn’t want to be a police officer like her mother, but “when I read the job description, I saw that I could bring the skills that I developed while working in Spokane, and I could also learn new skills, which were on the law enforcement side. And that was a bit of a nod to my mom. I could do the social services and work with at-risk communities, and also learn to be a community protector.”

At the same time, Multnomah County was taking over jurisdiction for adult parole and probation services from the State of Oregon, adding to the County’s oversight of juvenile justice to form a new department, the Department of Community Justice. That change brought new insights and methods to balance social and law enforcement work, evolving beyond a hard focus on monitoring conditions of probation and parole.

It turned out that Preuitt was just the kind of parole-probation officer the new department needed.    

Elyse Clawson, who became the department’s director in 1995 after previously running community corrections for the state, had a background in education and research. She took on the task of bridging the different cultures of adult and juvenile supervision now working together under the County’s banner.

“She introduced DCJ to the ‘What Works’ concepts and research and implemented several of those practices under her leadership,” Preuitt said of Clawson, whom she considers influential on her career. “We now refer to it as Evidence-Based Practices and Core Correctional practices. She also beckoned restorative justice principles.”  

Clawson said Preuitt was in an early group of new hires under the new approach, and said many people in the department were open to the changes under way.

“Erika wasn't a typical hire. But she just took hold,” Clawson remembered.

“Part of the process of implementing these concepts included changing job descriptions for personnel, and changing hiring practices, performance appraisals, all kinds of things.”

Erika Preuitt early in her career.

Likening herself to a talent scout, Clawson said, “When I would see people who were bright, talented and eager, wanting to change and wanting to learn, I’d kind of keep that in my head and look for opportunities for them to keep moving up and keep doing different things. And Erika was one of those people.”

“I had no experience in law enforcement, so that was actually a detractor for me when I applied,” Preuitt said. “But people like Horace Howard, God rest his soul, who was a district manager, and Carl Goodman, who's one of my biggest mentors and one of the ancestors of our African-American Program that still is in existence today, they advocated for me.” 

Goodman, who retired in 2013 as Director of DCJ’s Adult Services Division, praised Preuitt’s intellect, hard-working nature and ethics, saying he and Howard had to champion hiring Preuitt at a time when people of color were far less represented at the Department of Community Justice than today – young Black women in particular.

“Some thought we wanted her just because she was an African American female, but Horace and I saw her greatness early on,” Goodman said. “We were just so impressed with her personally and professionally.”

Learning and moving up the ranks

Preuitt’s early years were defined by learning  and applying new skills and concepts, from navigating high caseloads for parole-probation officers to learning how to use a firearm to understanding the challenges of different populations the department worked with.

Preuitt was originally assigned to a team devoted to intensive case management, an evidence-based practice that focuses on people  at high risk of having their parole revoked and returning to prison. The team built relationships with clients to keep them on the right path.

“I was very fortunate that the specialized population that I worked with was women,” Preuitt said. “Through their stories I learned about the impacts of trauma and realized at that point in time that I really didn't have the skills to even address the trauma that these women were bringing to me in these office visits. So it started to build the passion inside of me, to make sure that we were doing this work and doing it right by our communities.”

Later in the ’90s, Preuitt served three years on the Adult Services Division’s gang unit, seeing firsthand the racial disparities in the criminal justice system at a time when gang activity was growing in Portland. Through these formative years Preuitt worked to develop intellectual and emotional fluency in restorative, culturally and evidence-based practices, realizing her passion for “building community safety through positive change” – the Department of Community Justice’s ongoing vision.

“This was at the time that Measure 11 was voted in, so we went into schools and talked to kids about the impacts of Measure 11, trying to make sure that kids understood so that they wouldn't engage in activities that could bring them into our system,” Preuitt said. “That was a big part of what we were doing: preventative work, really trying to help young people change their behavior.”

Preuitt’s abilities, enthusiasm, and leadership qualities earned notice. In 1998, she was promoted to Community Corrections Program Administrator (a position now classified as Community Justice Manager). She moved further up the ranks, becoming a senior manager in 2007. 

Erika Preuitt.

In 2015, under the leadership of then-Director Scott Taylor, Preuitt was promoted to director of the Adult Services Division. In 2017, she achieved industry-wide recognition when she was sworn in as the first African American president of the American Probation and Parole Association. In 2018, Preuitt became the department’s Deputy Director. And when Taylor departed the County later that year, Preuitt took over as interim leader of the department. The Board of Commissioners removed the interim tag with a formal appointment in September 2019.

Leading through unprecedented tumult

Preuitt’s nearly five years leading the Department coincided with seismic-level upheavals, through the pandemic and a reckoning around racial justice – crossroads for Preuitt and everyone in Multnomah County.

“We went through history,” she said. “We went through the pandemic. We survived historic fires that plagued our community. We had to navigate through the calls and demands for us to reform and really look at ourselves very intensively as a result of the death of George Floyd, to make sure that we're doing right by our communities, for us to change and transform.”

The arrival of COVID-19 even changed how and where a large number of County staff carried out their work, including at the Department of Community Justice, where Preuitt oversaw efforts to keep staff and clients safe and develop department teleworking protocols that have evolved beyond the pandemic.

“We did all these things together,” Preuitt said. “And that is really what I think about when I think about DCJ. We are a collective. The work that we get engaged in every day is bigger than what any of us individually bring into this workplace. When we talk about building stronger communities, I think it's important for us to realize that we are a community internally, and we're a part of our broader communities within Portland and Multnomah County.”

Accomplishments and challenges


Preuitt testifying before the Board of County Commissioners.

Preuitt, Commissioner Lori Stegmann said, “understands the pivotal role and impact that parole and probation can play to help community members integrate and reintegrate into a society that doesn’t favor them. She cares deeply about our youth and is constantly looking for and finding ways to help them achieve their full potential.”

“I know that Erika comes from a very talented musical family, but here at Multnomah County she is truly a rock star,” said Commissioner Stegmann. “She is a true leader who isn’t afraid of doing what’s right versus what’s expedient or politically advantageous. I will miss her greatly and know that she will continue to contribute to our community just as she has for the last three decades.”

Asked about what work she is proudest of during her DCJ career, Preuitt highlighted her priority on gender-specific and culturally responsive supervision.

“In my time as a Community Justice Manager and as a senior manager, I was very proud to be responsible for programs that really promoted strengthening these services,” she said “There were times and budget cuts where those programs could have gone away. But I strongly advocated for those programs staying.”

A later accomplishment was leading an initiative called the Safe & Respectful Workplace, developed as a result of cultural conflicts within the workplace. 

“It was a cross-section of our whole department coming together to do what was sometimes harrowing work,” she said. “We had really difficult conversations but were able to build a consensus model that led to all of our teams having community agreements.”

The initiative is related to what Preuitt thinks will be an ongoing challenge, not only for the department but also across our society: polarization and division. But she also believes, in the end, the work is what binds everyone in the Department of Community Justice.

“I think that our staff come to us and they come with multiple identities,” Preuitt said. “They come to us with multiple perspectives on life. But despite our differences, despite the divisions that would fracture our communities, regardless of your political affiliation or personal identity, we come into this work together.

“We need to hold on to each other and stay focused on our North Star, which is ‘community safety through positive change,’ and unapologetically hold onto each other despite our different perspectives.”


Gratitude and retirement plans

“Working for Multnomah County and being a part of the Department of Community Justice for the last 30 years has been the biggest honor of my life,” Preuitt said.

“It's about building stronger communities. It's about restoring families. It's about helping people to change their behavior. And I believe the insight that I have into this work is because of the lessons and the love and the support that I have been given from my mom and my dad.”

Most of all, Preuitt credits everyone she’s worked with during all those years.

“I wouldn't be able to represent this department and do it with confidence if it weren't for all the people every single day who are giving their lives to do this work. I am lifted up by what people do to choose this profession and to really devote their lives to helping people who need them.” 

After her retirement becomes official May 1, 2024, Preuitt is looking forward to spending more time with her family, including two grandchildren (plus a third on the way). And she’s strongly considering a return to the crossroads she faced decades ago ”— this time to take the road not chosen.

“Even though I chose to stay local last time, Africa keeps calling back to me. It's my hope to do a mission trip there. 

“I want to do the work. I want to dig wells for freshwater and hold babies, and help build a different community.”

Erika Preuitt poses with family members after Commissioners approve her appointment as DCJ Director.