[You can read all of the Mercury’s “Top Stories of 2021” here.—eds]
The local and state criminal justice sector spent 2021 stretched between reacting to a global pandemic and calls for reform. Many of the issues it began to address will require years of commitment to see through, while others—like casually ending the death penalty—seemed to happen overnight.
COVID-19 in Jail: Multnomah County’s Inverness Jail kicked off the new year with a surging COVID-19 outbreak which sickened at least 20 percent of the crowded facility. This news came after months of complaints that jail staff and guards were neglecting to wear masks while at work, putting incarcerated individuals at risk of the virus. Shortly after the Mercury reported on this outbreak, the county began administering COVID-19 vaccine among Inverness inmates.
Future of Those Convicted By Non-Unanimous Juries Remains Hazy: In 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that “non-unanimous” jury convictions for people charged with felonies—a historically racist rule that Oregon followed—were unconstitutional. While that change impacts all future cases in Oregon courts, it’s still unclear what it means for Oregonians who were convicted by 10 out of 12 jurors for a felony in the past. The Supreme Court has left that decision up to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who has yet to act.
Police Impact on Crime Rates? New data released by an independent research group found that there is little to no correlation between the size of the Portland Police Bureau and the city’s crime rate. Thus, an increase in police officers may not always equate to an increase in community safety.
City Responds to Gun Violence Surge: Portland saw a historic surge in homicides caused by gun violence in 2020—and 2021 has been even worse. City Council attempted to address this surge at the start of the year by investing in a number of novel solutions, including expanding the city’s team of park rangers and funding grants for nonprofits that work with youth disproportionately at risk of being shot. In September, the Mercury found that those funds had still yet to reach many of the programs they were meant to support. In conjunction with this plan, Mayor Ted Wheeler also formed a new gun violence prevention team within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), but it has yet to start responding to gun crimes.
End of the Death Penalty? In October, the Oregon Supreme Court allowed a man to appeal his death penalty sentence due to a recent state law that removed the death penalty as an option in murder cases. The first-of-its kind court decision raised the possibility of clearing all current death sentences in the state, and possibly ending the option of a death penalty in Oregon courts.