PORTLAND'S NEW drug-crime exclusion zones—drawn up last year amid the frustrated entreaties of Old Town neighbors—have been billed as an improvement over their racially problematic predecessors: so-called Drug-Free Zones (DFZs) that wound up overwhelmingly targeting African American Portlanders.
Unlike under the previous zones, it's judges, and not cops, who get to decide which drug criminals deserve exclusions—a determination based on convictions instead of arrests, following a lengthy legal process. And also unlike the old zones, set aside in 2007, a chance at treatment is supposed to go hand in hand with exclusions. Even the name is different this time around: The zones, in downtown, Old Town, and near the Lloyd Center, are now called Drug Impact Areas (DIAs).
So are the new zones actually living up to that promise? For accountability advocates, that's still an open question.
A six-month report released by the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office last week tracks race in only one category: convictions in the 240 cases that occurred inside a DIA. By that measure, the DIAs do seem like an improvement. Just 37 percent of cases involved African Americans, the report showed—much better than under the old DFZs, in which as many as 50 percent of arrestees were black ["Black Exclusion Zones," News, March 8, 2007].
Billy Prince, the deputy district attorney overseeing the program, says the difference between the two "can't be overstated."
"The old project was one person saying you're excluded from this particular area," he said. "There weren't a lot of steps in that process."
But that statistic, while encouraging, doesn't tell the entire story.
"Is that an improvement? I guess so," says Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman. "Is it still targeting African Americans? I think so. It's better than the old Drug-Free Zones, but there's still something wrong."
The report, for instance, doesn't break down by race those who were actually convicted in drug cases citywide, let alone given exclusions, sent to jail, or diverted into drug court. That's significant data. According to one study of the old zones, 100 percent of African Americans arrested were given exclusions, compared to 58.6 percent of whites. Portland's black population is just 6 percent.
Prince did provide some additional data at the Mercury's request. Of 90 people (through Tuesday, January 24) excluded in cases that started in a drug zone, 47 percent were black and 53 percent were white. In cases from outside the drug zones, 36 percent of those given exclusions were black, while 58 percent were white.
That data, however, isn't as valuable without a race breakdown of all convictions in the same timeframe. He said the DA's office would look at providing that data in its next quarterly report, due this spring.
Also concerning: The report provides no information on how the exclusions have been enforced. Prince referred the Mercury to the Portland Police Bureau for information on trespassing arrests related to the exclusions. Sergeant Pete Simpson, a bureau spokesman, did not answer whether it even tracks that data, let alone provide it in time for the Mercury's deadline.
"The city and state might exclude anyone convicted of a relevant crime," says public defender Chris O'Connor, "but the interesting question is which of the excluded people get accused of violating the exclusion zone."
Still, city officials and prosecutors are clearly bullish about the program. In a handwritten note to the Portland City Council on the letter accompanying his office's report, District Attorney Michael Schrunk says, "Looks like a success—thank you all for your support."
In terms of easing crime, the zones do appear to be making a difference. Beyond exclusions and treatment, which is funneled through Portland's Service Coordination Team (SCT), the program allows Prince to focus on drug cases and also funds a near-daily walking patrol in Old Town by Portland cops. Cases once treated as violations, because of budget cuts, are once again treated as misdemeanors and felonies.
"I've seen a reduction," says Howard Weiner, an Old Town business owner who helped lobby Mayor Sam Adams' office for the zones, adding he was glad to see the "convictions are more broadly based."
Prince says he's heard from addicts who'd grown tired of being hassled by dealers outside treatment facilities.
The report does overstate one thing: It says 43 people are "currently being served" by the SCT. Austin Raglione, who directs the SCT, clarified to say that's how many have participated at some point.
"Not everyone who enrolls stays," she says. "It's the nature of the beast. Some of those 43 are successful, but we haven't graduated any of them yet."