September 12, 2019

Longtime community justice advocate and nationally recognized leader, Erika Preuitt, appointed director of County Department of Community Justice

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners formally appointed Erika Preuitt, a longtime County probation and parole officer, community justice advocate and nationally recognized leader in community corrections, as director of the Department of Community Justice.  

“I am extremely pleased to request that the board approve appointments of Erika Preuitt as a director of the Department of Community Justice and Bob Leek and the director of Department of County Assets,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury who presented both appointments on Sept. 12.  You can read about Bob Leek's appointment here.

“In this work there is never an easy time or a calm transition period when you’re a director," Kafoury said. "The County puts a lot of resources into evaluation and succession planning. We are constantly evaluating and expanding to make sure people have the opportunity to rise up through the ranks.  

Today, two people in front of us have shown that when it’s their time they have risen to the occasion.” 

Preuitt, who has served as interim director for 11 months, came up through the ranks of the department as a parole and probation officer. She will now officially oversee the 600-person organization made up of parole and probation officers, juvenile court counselors, custody service specialists, corrections technicians and administrative staff. 

She will continue to lead a department known on a national level for its innovative practices for juveniles and adults, and for its alternatives to incarceration such as the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program.

But she will also guide the organization through some of its most challenging times, including  devastating public safety cuts due to funding decisions made by the Oregon Legislature. Those cuts come despite the county’s successful programs and its lower re-offense and conviction rate for high-level offenders than the rest of the state. Legislative funding approved this year failed to account for rising inflation and community corrections costs, on both the state-wide and local levels.  

Despite the challenges, Preuitt has fought to keep caseload sizes at levels that allow parole and probation officers the necessary time to work with people involved in the justice system — focusing on high-risk individuals as well as addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the public safety system.  

“I have been honored to grow up in this agency,” Preuitt said Thursday. 

“It gives me a unique perspective of our strengths and where we need to improve. I look forward to working with our beautiful tapestry of staff as we implement the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, recover from devastating budget reductions and affirm our commitment to evidence-based practices, reducing racial and ethnic disparities within our system. 

We have a long journey ahead as we move toward unity and transformation,” she continued. 

“We have made great progress in the last year, in the midst of significant setbacks. We will continue to strive toward excellence, fortifying our part of the county’s safety net.” 

Newly appointed Department of Community Justice Director Erika Preuitt poses with family, including her father, Norman Sylvester (left) and mother Carmen Sylvester (right)

Preuitt became a parole and probation officer in Multnomah County more than 25 years ago. The Portland native grew up in Northeast Portland— raised in a family entrenched in public service. 

Her mother was the first African American woman hired as a police officer by the City of Portland and the State of Oregon in 1973. She was also one of the first five women placed on street patrol. Even with a demanding job, Preuitt’s mother volunteered as a coach, was active in her church and served as “Officer Friendly” in local schools. 

Preuitt’s father — a local award-winning blues musician and community activist — currently is a leading  advocate for health care for all.

“The example they set put me on a path of wanting to build community and influence the lives of those involved or impacted by community violence,” Preuitt said. 

“My mother modeled courage and perseverance. She exhibited what it meant to care about the community and engaged us in these efforts at an early age. I love Northeast Portland and wanted to be a part of making a difference in the community where I lived.” 

“I attended St Mary’s Academy, where I was exposed to social justice issues,” she continued. “These experiences led to focusing my career on making a difference in my community, particularly working with women, families and gang-involved individuals.”

Preuitt was first assigned to Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ) Intensive Case Management Program working with justice-involved women. She also spent significant time assigned to the Adult Gang Unit, helping gang members change their behavior. Her talents were quickly noticed as she was promoted to community justice manager, then district manager, and then director of the Department’s Adult Services Division. She was promoted to deputy director of the Department of Community Justice in April 2018.      

In 2017, Preuitt was also sworn in as the first African American president of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), the international advocacy organization for pretrial, probation, parole and community-based corrections professionals. She served as president for two years.  Preuitt paused during her appointment to thank the County managers who had mentored and supported her career including Elyse Clawson, Joanne Fuller, Carl Goodman, Truls Neal and Scott Taylor.

“I want to acknowledge those who have paved the way in strength and courage to allow me to stand here before you today,” said Preuitt. “I would be nothing without faith and family.” [view remarks below] 

As the Department’s permanent director, Preuitt said she will remain steadfastly committed to ensuring staff feel supported in their work. She also wants the Department to continue learning, and always looking to the latest evidence-based best practices. And she plans to grow its work to better emphasize trauma-informed care

Multnomah County board members pose with newly appointed County directors Erika Preuitt, Department of Community Justice and Bob Leek, Department of County Assets.

“The work of community corrections is so important because of its multiplying effect. We are change agents,” she said. “When our staff help people to change their lives, a family is restored and communities grow stronger. 

It is so inspiring to work alongside individuals who were once on our caseloads. They have become treatment providers, peer support, community health workers and mentors. They are supporting their families, reconciling with their communities and helping other justice involved individuals navigate complex systems. 

They are making a difference!”  

“Erika, I think you are a wonderful person — inside and out — and what you contribute to DCJ in the work that you’re doing —  is making such an impact and I thank you for that,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “You’ve risen to every challenge and addressed it with intelligence, passion and grace.” 

“I look forward to a bright future where DCJ employees, our community partners, public safety partners and county family grow stronger together,” said Preuitt. 

“I thank this Board of phenomenal women for believing in me and I look forward to our continued work to support and strengthen Multnomah County.” 

REMARKS 

CHAIR DEBORAH KAFOURY

“Thank you both for your patience,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury, referencing the appointments of both Erika Preuitt and Bob Leek. “You’ve held your interim director roles for a long time. I know that can be stressful for you and your employees when there’s not a permanent director at the top. 

I also want to thank the employees that you work with for their patience and understanding. It’s a really difficult time to be in public service. I think public service jobs are always really difficult, even in the best of times, said Kafoury. But with the turmoil that our country is in right now — the fear and frustration that the residents of our community, feel across the spectrum, is tough for everyone. So it takes a very special person to take up the calling of being in public service. 

Thank you both for taking this on,” said Kafoury. “I know you will do your best at all times and you’ve shown that in your work  You have my complete trust and appreciation and I really look forward to the work that we’re going to do together.” 

COMMISSIONER SHARON MEIERAN

“I’ve been here for a little over 2 ½ years …. and I’ve spent a significant portion of my time here working with you both,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran referencing both Bob Leek and Erika Preuitt’s appointment to the Department of Community Justice. 

“Over that time, I have been consistently struck by your intelligence, your grace under pressure, your backgrounds, your dedication to the mission and county and the work that do everyday and your compassion. Those are an incredible group of traits that you both show so deeply in all of the work that you do. I could not be more excited to support you here today.”

Erika I think you are a wonderful person, inside and out, and what you contribute to DCJ in the work that you’re doing —  is making such an impact and I thank you for that,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “You’ve risen to every challenge and addressed it with intelligence, passion and grace.” 

COMMISSIONER SUSHEELA JAYAPAL 

“I am also delighted to be here this morning and support these appointments. In the short time that I have had with both of you, I am truly struck by your integrity and your fidelity to the County values that we talk about and your deep, deep, deep desire to see those effectuated. 

Erika, you navigated through some really difficult times including the last of couple weeks and I echo Commissioner Meieran’s description of that as grace under pressure. 

I’ve appreciated your clarity about what you department’s mission and vision is, and your transparency about how the strategies that you put in place, get us to that place.”  

COMMISSIONER JESSICA VEGA PEDERSON

We have two outstanding people who are fully capable and eager to take on the really big challenges of leading the departments that you have. I feel like we are lucky to have the both of you take on these challenges.

“All the work we do at the county is incredibly important,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “Critically, community justice is really integral to the role that we play with our public safety system and it’s a big challenge  And Erika, I feel like we have the best person in you stepping into that position.” 

COMMISSIONER LORI STEGMANN 

“We have a big ship to turn,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, “And we know we have challenges and we are not perfect but we are striving for that. And Erika, I have enjoyed working with you and I’m 110 percent confident that you are going to help us make that shift into the  culture we want to embrace. 

“I know both of you could go outside this agency and make a lot more money and so the fact that you have chosen this path, to stay with Multnomah County,” Stegmann said. “I am so grateful because I know it’s not about the money, it’s about the work and the impact you can make and are making.”  

DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY JUSTICE DIRECTOR ERIKA PREUITT 

“When I was thinking about becoming a parole and probation officer, I wanted to be a part of improving my community,” Preuitt said. “Parole and probation officers and community corrections professionals are that consistent and constant presence in the community. We play an invaluable role in community safety and positive change.” 

“That’s what keeps me motivated  — that people can and do change — and that we make a difference.”   

“I would be nothing without faith and family,” said Preuitt. “My husband and children fuel my passion for this work. Matt is a retired Federal Probation Officer, who has committed his life to working with the underserved. He has role modeled unconditional love, integrity and dedication to our profession. Grant, Taylor, Noah and Isaiah, thank you for ground me and for making me the proudest mother in the world.’’

“We have a challenging journey ahead of us as we rebuild our department after these truly devastating budget reductions,” she said. “This journey also presents opportunities for us to be more creative and collaborative as we work to maximize our impact within the criminal justice system.”

“We have a lot of work to do to continue to achieve our vision ‘Community Safety through Positive Change,’ said Preuitt.

“We cannot do it alone. We will continue to strengthen our relationships with County, public safety and community partners to help people involved in the justice system change their behavior and keep our communities safe.” 

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