Update on progress of Multnomah County Transforming Justice project

December 16, 2021

Multnomah County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC) executive committee members heard on Monday, Dec. 13, the progress made to date on an ambitious multi-sector initiative to re-envision the criminal legal system.

Transforming Justice is an effort that stems from the January 2020 What Works in Public Safety Conference. The conference brought together local and national experts from healthcare, human services and the judiciary, as well as law enforcement, defense attorneys, community providers, victims’ rights advocates and representatives from county and city government. Together, they committed to work together to begin a process to envision and then transform public safety systems. 

Today, that vision is within sight, with a June 2022 goal for producing a vision across public safety systems that grows health and housing responses, shrinks the legal system footprint and outlasts turnover and election cycles. The project builds on years of efforts, including programs, policies and budgets designed to push the system toward reform. While much work remains to reach the precipice of system change, the progress that’s been made so far — alongside the recognition of, and continued calls to address, systemic inequities — promises to shape and propel the work forward.

The project will lead to a long-term vision report, alongside visualized priorities and plan of action for the group.
The project will lead to a long-term vision report, alongside visualized priorities and plan of action for the group.

“There’s an “s” in ‘public safety systems’ because we’re talking housing, medical, behavioral systems — not just the criminal legal system,” said Abbey Stamp, executive director of the LPSCC, which spearheads the project.

Stamp shared the three main pillars guiding the Transforming Justice initiative:

  • Leads with race and prioritizes interventions, policies, and budgeting for Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities;
  • Focuses on shrinking the current criminal legal system footprint, and grows health, housing, and treatment responses, and; 
  • Increases restorative approaches that focus on healing, harm reduction, and restoration.

In October 2020, Territory — a consulting firm that focuses on remote collaboration, visualized group facilitation and human-centered design — was hired to facilitate the crucial work to reform the justice system. Since then, a steering committee and working group have tirelessly pushed to establish a charter, identify key stakeholders and develop a research plan. 

Human centered design — a core value of Territory’s — “assumes every problem, every challenge and every opportunity is human centered,” said Jeremy Varo-Haub, a lead strategist for Territory.

Varo-Haub described the four stages of the project: 

  1. The development of a research plan, which has been completed.
  2. Environmental research and discovery, which is currently underway.
  3. Visioning sessions, which will occur from March through May 2022, will lead to a fully realized vision. 
  4. And finally, a long-term vision report, alongside visualized priorities and plan of action for the group. 

Now in the second phase, the team is conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups with decision-makers involved in criminal legal, housing and health systems; victims of crime and victim services providers; victim’s advocates; and individuals with lived experience in justice and behavioral health systems and many more.

“We’re madly interviewing and running focus groups and getting surveys from people, which has been an incredible experience for those who have been fortunate enough to take part in any of these,” said Varo-Haub.

“We’re [also] gleaning wisdom from work and research that’s complete, including nearly 30 pre-existing reports and materials used in the Transforming Justice discovery process so we aren’t repeating work.” 

Community engagement critical as project moves forward

“I want to share some good statistics with you,’’ said Duane Roach, project manager for Territory.

Since mid November, the working group has sent 90 surveys, Roach said, although only 8 percent have completed it so far. Forty-three people were invited to participate in one-on-one interviews, with 19 of them already completed. In addition, 161 stakeholders/individuals were invited to participate in focus groups, with 45 attending so far. 

That puts the project at 24 percent completion for the discovery process, said Roach.

Of all those who have been invited to participate in the environmental research phase, criminal legal system decision makers, including judges, police chiefs, defense attorneys, reform organizations, and victims and survivors have been the most engaged stakeholders groups, Roach said.  

The least engaged stakeholders are elected officials, culturally specific community groups, and culturally specific providers.  

“We’re working hard to increase the level of participation,” said Roach. 

LPSCC co-chairs Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty recorded short videos emphasizing the importance of the work and the value of stakeholder perspectives, which have been shared with those who haven’t yet responded to Territory’s invitations to participate. Follow-up emails and calls are being made by the working group and project team to further encourage participation. 

“We extended the period for outreach and research to mid January to ensure we include as many stakeholders as possible in our overarching research,” said Roach. 

A team of schedulers, managers and facilitators are working very hard to get the word out to people, added Stamp. 

“It’s not for lack of trying or wanting to engage; it’s simply been a coordinating challenge to make the engagements happen.”

Work to Come  

Stamp said that the working group hopes to provide some preliminary themes and insights from the discovery process by the end of December. 

“With budget season upon us, we need to show what we’re hearing from stakeholder reports.” 

In January, a draft discovery report based on the findings will be released. In February, a full discovery report and summary will be unveiled. 

Then, using the information gained from the research and discovery process, the Transforming Justice team will “sketch out what we think the vision for Multnomah County’s criminal legal system and public safety systems should be with the working group,” said Varo-Haub. “That vision will be brought to the steering committee for review.” 

The public will also be able to provide feedback on the vision. 

Although the project deliverable is a long-term vision report by June 2022, “Really, that’s just the start,” Stamp said. “Once we create a vision, then the work happens. What would be our goal about how our systems should look in two years? What about five years?

“We know we can’t turn the Titanic around in one fiscal year, but we know there’s a lot more we can quickly do together once we have a vision to buy into.”

“I’m excited about where we are,” said Commissioner Hardesty. 

Multnomah County and the City of Portland both have charter review commissions, which will be working as we conclude this part of the work, remarked Hardesty.  

“I’m wondering at the end of the analysis if there are charter questions that should be considered,” she said. 

Emerging Themes

Presenters also captured a collection of “memorable moments and salient soundbites” gathered from those who have taken part in the discovery process. 

“It is not the final synthesis and should not be interpreted as final insights of take-away,” but the raw data is nonetheless a reflection of people’s perceptions of the criminal legal system, explained Suzanne Pflaum, a Territory strategist. 

A broken design 

A broken design
A broken design

In response to survey questions like “What are the ways the current system is working for you and/or the populations you serve?” responses ranged for participants, said Pflaum. Many comments concerned the broken design of the systems — that they are designed in a flawed way that does not serve the populations the stakeholders represent. 

Pflaum shared that one participant said, “Well, there’s not a lot to think about because frankly it’s [the criminal justice and public safety systems] just not working. It’s not working in any way for the people that we serve.”

Another person, Pflaum said, likened the criminal justice system to “a hospital that actually makes people sicker, not healthier.”

Trauma begets trauma 

Trauma begets trauma
Trauma begets trauma

We also are frequently hearing about the additional harms that involvement in the system causes, said Pflaum. Trauma not only takes a toll on the justice-involved individual, but their family and community members, too. Comments along this theme included:

  • “Many people come out of incarceration mad, not healed. If they do return to the community improved, it’s about that person’s intrinsic nature, not the punishment.”
  • “People often just simply need a safe place to go, to heal, to stop the cycle of repeating harm.
  • “Involvement of any youth in the justice system causes trauma to every member of the family.”

Philosophical shifts required

Philosophical shifts
Philosophical shifts required

Many participants mentioned that a universal shift in mindset is required across all stakeholders and community members — a shift toward the inclusion of concepts like forgiveness,restoration and healing, and away from punishment, said Pflaum.

One participant shared, “While it’s offering restoration for no one, the system is in some ways working — doing what it was designed to do. So, shifting it will mean shifting the American philosophy of justice.”

Empower community to lead

Empower community to lead
Empower community to lead

The theme of empowering communities to lead stood out in preliminary research. 

For example, the system should cede leadership to the community by providing material, political and emotional support to individual community members and community organizations, said Pflaum. Those individuals can then lead the transformation and ultimately lead public safety efforts.

“I would love to have outcomes where people are being treated with dignity and respect, and they engage in recovering communities and become leaders themselves,” Pflaum said a participant shared.

Centering Humans

Centering Humans
Centering Humans

Finally, there is a resounding call to center humans and humanity — to focus on the individuals’ experiences, needs, and expertise of those closest to the problem, as they are best equipped to provide the best solutions.

Pflaum quoted a participant: “Those closest to the problem are those with the best, most realistic ideas for successful solutions.” 

Reflections on progress to date 

“Was there anyone who felt like they got any benefit from the criminal justice system?” asked Erika Preuitt, the director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. 

“I’m speaking more to the victims’ voices. Did anyone ever feel like they were justified?”  

“Anywhere where someone had a one-to-one relationship was a success,” replied Pflaum.

“The customization of the experience — in contrast to ‘here’s a sheet of paper that everyone gets and good luck’ — but actual hand-holding through the process of providing whatever services that are specifically suited to someone’s situation which are unique.”  

When asked what is or isn’t working, “There have been people who have said what’s actually working in the system and we’ll compile that as we look at this,” Varo-Haub said. 

“It isn’t a resounding, ‘The system itself is horrible and we’re just done with it.’”

It’s not a surprise that people have a lot more to say about how they’d like to see the criminal legal system change, said Varo-Haub, “but we have still heard some things that are working across the system.”  

“Are people being compensated for reliving trauma and being experts in this specific arena of work?” asked LaKeesha Dumas, a community engagement specialist in Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health Division. 

“We need to value people’s time, experience and opinion, just like we do consultants. It’s because of them that change will be made.”

Modest compensation for select participants was built into the budget, said Stamp.

“We communicate with those who participate in surveys or focus groups or interviews that as an option they can receive a gift card, excluding those who are on the job, to take part in the process.”

“There was an appreciation at the end of every focus group for the nature of the conversation, the intentionality,” said Pflaum. “And as a facilitator it makes me really proud of how we’re engaging this many people.