Multnomah County Justice System

By Don MacGillivray

Over the summer, Portland’s impassioned demonstrations and accompanying riots have received national attention. Law enforcement in Portland has been seriously scrutinized, but the other half of the justice system deserves to be inspected equally. Both are undergoing review and change by state and local government.

Multnomah County is introducing reforms within the criminal justice system concerning cash bail, pretrial detention, charges on misdemeanors and the ways rioters are treated following their arrest after the nightly demonstrations. This puts some of the offenders back on the street with the opportunity to continue their disruptive behaviors which may make maintaining order more difficult for the authorities. 

Simultaneously, the public is calling for reductions in police budgets and in these troubled times, many experienced police officers are considering retirement. Lawmakers are condemning the violence while they rework the laws that have historically worked to incarcerate many at risk minorities and low income people because of racism and problematic behaviors.

The District Attorney’s Office with over 70 deputy district attorneys is divided into three divisions. 

Division 1 is composed of units for Juveniles, Domestic Violence, Child Support and the Child Abuse Team. Division 2 is made up of units for Misdemeanors and Trials, Gangs, Community Courts and the Neighborhood D.A. Program. Division 3 works with Pretrial Pleas, Arraignments, Fraud, Vehicles, Burglary, Theft, Drugs, Vice, Aggravated Assault, Attempted Murder, Child Abuse and more.

Many of the criminal defendants in our courts are not able to afford a defense within the criminal justice system. Indigent defendants are represented by publicly-supported attorneys organized as an independent, non-profit law firm called the Metropolitan Public Defender (MPD). 

MPD was created in 1971 and works in Multnomah and Washington counties and they have a staff of more than 145 attorneys, legal assistants, investigators and social workers, among others. They provide quality legal representation for more than 15,000 low-income individuals each year. 

Also available are the Multnomah Defenders, Incorporated; a non-profit, public interest law firm providing quality legal representation for adults and juveniles.

Among the public defenders’ methods is the harm reduction diversion program providing “treatment first” to de-felonize and divert illegal drug possession cases. There is the Clean Slate program that retroactively removes fines and fees. The Justice Reinvestment project works to shift the discussion about prison sentences toward meeting the needs of the defendants.

Most criminal prosecutions in the US are settled with plea bargains, not jury trials. A plea bargain is an agreement in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a reduced charge when it is offered by the prosecutors. This helps the defendant by resolving a complex and difficult situation quickly and it avoids the expense of a jury trial. 

Currently, 85-95 percent of criminal cases result in negotiated plea bargains. However, some believe that this practice may not be in the best interests of the defendants. 

A plea bargain requires the defendant to waive the right to a jury trial, the right against self-incrimination and the right to confront witnesses which are all protected by the constitution. Convictions can have a variety of severe long term repercussions. 

The Supreme Court has held that plea bargaining is constitutional as long as the consequences of the guilty pleas are understood by the defendants and that they are agreed to voluntarily.

In 2015, Multnomah County began working to improve and develop their internal justice systems that involve data analysis, pretrial assessments and the reduction of jail beds as a means to make public safety more effective and efficient. 

The John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation’s “Safety and Justice Challenge” has provided $2 million in 2017 and another $2 million in 2020 to help with this work. 

Ballot measure 11, passed in 1994, increased incarcerations within the jail population and included unfair and ineffective practices affecting low-income inmates as well as those with mental and substance abuse issues. 

In addition, Multnomah County is identifying strategies to correct inequitable treatment of racial and ethnic populations within the justice system.

Multnomah County’s new District Attorney is Mike Schmidt, whose term began this year. In the election last May, he received 76 percent of the vote indicating that his progressive vision has the support of the public. He is expected to make positive changes within our criminal justice system. 

After graduating from the Lewis and Clark School of Law Schmidt worked at the Oregon legislature as director of the state’s Criminal Justice Commission before becoming a Multnomah County deputy district attorney. He intends to work toward legal reforms and make public safety in this county less punitive and more effective.

The story about the role of Multnomah County in the criminal justice system is compelling and complex. It is as important as the questions regarding police reform. 

Many believe that there are changes that will make law enforcement and the courts less biased and of more value for everyone. This is an important undertaking for Portland, the state of Oregon and the country.

Multnomah County Justice System

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