[In the Shadows is a new biweekly column in which Mercury crime and cop reporter Matt Davis explores Portland's underbelly.—eds.]
Chris O'Connor is a cross between a public defender in community court and Superman.
He's a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted barrel of a guy, whose surprising lightness on his feet extends to his conversation—you don't converse with him, so much as joust. This, of course, comes in handy in court.
Two weeks ago I watched O'Connor shepherd 54 defendants through community court at the downtown Justice Center on SW 3rd, in the space of just five hours. Some cases took less than a minute, some as long as five. Either way, it was quick-fire justice.
Community court was created as a fast way for the district attorney's office to prosecute a whole host of misdemeanor crimes—from urinating in public to theft in the second degree to prostitution. Instead of clogging up our overloaded judicial system, people prepared to plead guilty to minor offenses without a jury trial agree to perform community service or undergo drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment in order to have their case discharged or dismissed without going to jail. They must also waive the right to appeal their conviction.
At one point O'Connor conducted two conversations simultaneously—one at full volume with the judge, about the case he was representing, and one in hushed tones with his client, who seemed hell-bent on yelping out something incriminating at any moment. It was exhausting to watch.
Most people going into community court are down on their luck, and "have simply stolen groceries," O'Connor says.
"The Interstate Fred Meyer is the largest victim," O'Connor notes. "I've seen everything stolen—from diapers to port wine, DVDs to shrimp."
Outside of court, O'Connor is readying himself to challenge City Commissioner Randy Leonard's new Drug-Free Zone replacement scheme, which targets Portland's worst offenders for drug and, if necessary, mental health treatment, diverting them from the coziness of community court.
The $850,000 plan, concocted by Leonard with downtown cop Jeff Myers, will aim to redirect a "dirty 30" list of Portland's most recurrent offenders from community court by citing them straight into felony court. There they'll be funneled into drug treatment and straight to the top of the list for affordable housing.
O'Connor thinks the program is unfair.
"You or I can go downtown with a crack pipe, and be charged with a misdemeanor," he says. "But if we happen to be on Jeff Myers' list, we'd be charged with a felony.
"It's a sad state of affairs when you force someone to commit a felony in order to get mental health or drug treatment that should be available to them without it," he says. "Not to mention that the fundamental lesson of the 20th century seems to me to be that we shouldn't put people's names on lists, and then target them for special treatment."
O'Connor will meet with Leonard on January 3, to show him around the courthouse. Leonard defends the new scheme, saying it is "saving lives and giving back to families loved ones that many had thought were lost forever."