Last week, Mayor Tom Potter announced that he was letting the embattled Drug-Free Zone policy expire in the wake of a report showing that its enforcement was racially biased. Instead, he's now moving forward on a new plan that is anything but novel—expanding the year-and-a-half-old Project 57, and giving a half million dollars for more drug treatment.
Under the program, the city rents 57 jail beds in the Multnomah County Detention Center, reserved—theoretically, at least—for chronic offenders of crimes like drug possession and distribution. Because of the overtaxed justice system, those suspected offenders would otherwise be released immediately—or simply cited on the street without ever getting booked. But if an arresting officer decides that an arrest qualifies for Project 57 (P57), the suspect is tossed in a cell for the night, until they see a judge the next day.
The idea is that by disrupting a suspect's life—even for the night—they are less likely to be arrested for another similar crime, and that by holding them until arraignment, they are more likely to continue through the justice system or into treatment.
And the proponents of the program, especially City Commissioner Randy Leonard, believe Project 57 works wonders. A quarterly report released in June by the Project 57 Steering Committee claims that of the suspects arrested under P57, 80 percent "have not been re-apprehended on a P57-type charge." The report also points out that arrests for the types of crime that are targeted by P57 and the Drug-Free Zones—drugs and prostitution—are falling faster in the P57-targeted areas than they are in the city at large.
But not everyone is as excited as Leonard. Chris O'Connor, a public defender who was a vocal critic of the DFZs, believes any expansion of the Project 57 program should be watched carefully. Because officers use their own discretion on which cases to assign to P57, many of the same racial discrepancies could show up in P57 bookings.
"If there's no standard formula for who gets booked under Project 57, you're back to the Drug-Free Zone and Prostitution-Free Zone problems," O'Connor says.
That is, if an officer wants to make life difficult for an arrestee—for whatever reason—all he or she has to do is write "P57" at the top of the citation. Given the debacle of the Drug-Free Zones, it's in city council's interest to monitor the enforcement of the program.