A new political organization hopes to center criminal justice reform in Multnomah and Clackamas counties’ 2020 district attorney (DA) races.
The group, Oregon DA for the People, aims to bring progressive criminal justice initiatives—including improving police accountability, ending mass incarceration, and decriminalizing sex work and drug use—to the forefront in the upcoming campaigns. County DAs have a strong influence over who gets charged with crimes, how severe sentences are, and whether allegations of police misconduct are brought before a grand jury, and the organizers behind Oregon DA for the People see them as the gatekeepers for criminal justice reform on the local level.
“Most of the folks who can influence accountability for police, we don’t have an influence over,” said Madeline Carroll, an organizer with the group. (Full disclosure: Carroll formerly worked in the Mercury's production department.) “But the DA is an exception, because they’re publicly elected.”
There’s a strong chance that neither race the group is focused on will include an incumbent, meaning there’s more opportunity for a reform candidate to win. In Multnomah County, current DA Rod Underhill—generally thought to be a progressive-leaning DA—is planning to retire at this end of his term, and so far, four potential candidates have established political action committees, an indication that they plan to run for the office. In Clackamas County, DA John Foote—a longtime opponent of the type of criminal justice reform that Oregon DA for the People is pushing for—is rumored to be retiring, and one of his chief deputies is running to replace him.
Oregon DA for the People represents a coalition of organizations, including Pacific Northwest Family Circle, a group for people whose loved ones have died because of police violence, and Showing Up for Racial Justice PDX, a racial justice organization. While the group does not plan to make any endorsements in the 2020 races, it will host voter forums in October that focus on the issues laid out in its platform.
That detailed platform is divided into six broad goals: reducing police targeting of people of color and immigrants; not prosecuting people with mental illnesses; not trying minors in the adult court system; ending mass incarceration; increasing police and prosecutor accountability; and decriminalizing homelessness, drug use, and sex work.
The group would like to see that platform carried out by a DA who commits to a wide range of actions. Those include symbolic gestures, like publicly “apologiz[ing] for the history of racialized injustice in our current systems,” along with concrete policy actions, like refusing to apply any mandatory minimum sentences to people younger than 25 and declining to prosecute charges of drug possession or sex solicitation.
“We are working to decrease the harm that these systems have on people’s everyday lives," reads the written platform for Oregon DA for the People. “This platform, created with the input of grassroots organizations and community members, will push candidates to commit to less harmful policies that when and if implemented may decrease some harm.”
Carroll said she and her fellow organizers were inspired by Philly DA for the People, a similar grassroots campaign in Philadelphia that held its own voter forums during the 2018 Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania DA race. That race was won by Larry Krasner, a reform candidate who ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration.
“The focus on the issues in that race made it possible for [Krasner] to be elected,” Carroll said. “There was a really good public understanding of where the candidates stood, which is our main goal.”
Correction: This blog previously stated that no candidates have filed a political action committee to run for district attorney in Clackamas County. That is incorrect; one candidate, John Wentworth, has established a committee.