When Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill announced he was retiring last year, he opened the door for the first tight DA race the county has seen in years.
In the end, that race came down to two candidates: Ethan Knight, an assistant United States attorney who has Underhill’s endorsement; and Mike Schmidt, a self-defined reform candidate who is backed by a slate of progressive individuals and organizations.
Earlier this week, the Mercury endorsed Schmidt for the job, after reviewing both candidates’ written responses to our endorsement questionnaire. But given the critical issues facing the next DA—a continuing response to COVID-19, a dearth of funding from the state, and a potential roll-out of police body-worn cameras among them—we wanted to share both candidates’ words with our readers.
Here are both Schmidt’s and Knight’s responses, in full.
MERCURY: We’ve seen the Multnomah County justice system change considerably in the last few weeks in response to COVID-19. What do you think of the DA’s office’s response, and what would you do differently if you were in office?
KNIGHT: I am glad to see District Attorney Rod Underhill responding quickly to this crisis to prioritize activities and adapt to the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak. I appreciate the work they are doing to reduce courthouse visits and the number of people being held in county corrections. I am also glad to see that they are prioritizing criminal activity that is particularly dangerous in this moment - violent crimes (including the alarming rise of incidents of domestic violence), as well as scams and other attempts to exploit this crisis.
By the time I would take office in January, I expect this crisis will have evolved significantly. Even if we have developed a vaccine or dramatically curtailed the number of infected, the long term impacts of social and economic disruption will be massive. We will likely face increased criminal activity from the economic hardship and disruption of our social safety net. And we will have a county facing significant budget constraints. Ensuring public safety and accountability for criminal activity will require tough choices about the allocation of resources and staff. All of the parties in our criminal justice system will need to rise to the challenge. That is where I believe my over 20 years of experience in our state and federal criminal court system will be critical in building collaboration and finding agreement on the tough decisions we will be forced to make.
SCHMIDT: I believe that in the face of a global pandemic, real decisive leadership is needed from our public safety leaders. By using data to make sound, informed decisions now, we hope to avoid having to make even harder decisions later. I’ve outlined the actions I’d like to see leaders take in a piece I published on Medium last month.
From what I can tell from talking to people currently working in the system locally, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office was quick to take appropriate action in response to this crisis. They have been partners in reducing the jail population, helping the courthouse postpone non-essential matters, and doing what they can to protect staff, witnesses and victims from accidental contagion.
However, I have been incredibly disappointed to read the response of the Oregon District Attorneys Association (ODAA) to this crisis. They have taken a “business as usual” approach by criticizing our Governor for asking for information about who could be released from prison safely back into the community at an expedited rate even before any proposals were on the table. These same district attorneys, who are partnering with their local jails to reduce the incarcerated population in order to reduce the potential catastrophe of the spread of COVID-19 in their county facilities, have released a statement saying “ODAA has significant public safety concerns about convicted criminals, many of whom are violent, being released prior to the completion of their sentences. Such actions undermine truth in sentencing."
Instead of being partners at this time of crisis, they are stirring fears based on nothing more than the Governor doing her due diligence. I expect more from ODAA, and from the Multnomah County DA who could have used this opportunity to be a part of the solution instead of joining an ODAA effort to take solutions off of the table before they are even written.
MERCURY: This pandemic has revealed serious gaps in our society’s public safety net—including within the criminal justice system (jails, prisons, court hearings, reentry programs, rehabilitation programs, etc.) Which of those gaps feel most critical to you, and how would you use your role as DA to work towards mending them?
KNIGHT: I was privileged to be part of the creation of community courts in 2000-2001, but these alternatives to incarceration have remained underfunded for the last several years. I support these and other efforts to intervene with people when they first enter the system to address underlying issues like addiction and mental health that will lead people to reoffend if untreated. We also need to be doing more to work on reentry efforts, particularly given the realities of social distancing and the impact on our correctional institutions.
We will need to make public health choices about releasing people from jails and incarceration. Having these people arrive on the streets without supports and the ability to put their lives back on track puts them in direct danger given the continued spread of the disease and greatly increases the risk of reoffending. Continuing those services in a time of pandemic is difficult and will compete for valuable resources in this environment. But we need to make it a priority to keep our communities safe and be thoughtful about the best use of our limited public safety dollars. I have been honored to work for several years as a leader of the Oregon Law Foundation to ensure access to legal counsel for those who cannot afford it. Attention to civil matters is also vital for those seeking to get their life back on track. For instance, it is important that we do more to reduce fines and fees associated with convictions so these do not become barriers to reentry when it comes to securing housing and employment.
SCHMIDT: Generally speaking, people who were previously vulnerable for any reason have been made profoundly more vulnerable because of the pandemic. For example: We’ve seen a dramatic increase in domestic violence, as many people are stuck at home with their abuser in very stressful circumstances and no ability to escape. Even in the best of times, our resources for victims are stretched far too thin, and they are stretched even thinner now. I recently wrote a letter to the legislature’s Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response in support of a $2 million request for resources to support those providings crucial services to victims of domestic violence during this crisis.
The racial disparities in COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates across the country and here at home also make it painfully obvious how the effects of decades of systemic discrimination have compounded over time. While nationally the data shows that African- American communities in particular are struggling with the disease, here in Oregon the data seems to suggest that our Latinx community is being hit hardest. The fact that our social safety nets are failing minority communities disproportionately should be studied and lead to an examination in all of our public systems of what has contributed to these failures. A district attorney should be willing to acknowledge these truths and be mindful of how their office’s policies have downstream effects on communities’ health and economic outcomes.
MERCURY: One challenge the county’s justice system faces is limited funding from the state. Without enough funding, it can be hard to implement new programs that prioritize rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. How would you prioritize the limited budget?
KNIGHT: We will be facing very tough choices in the next few years. I want to be a partner at the state level in setting smart criminal and sentencing policy. A key difference in this race is how we see the role of this office as one of 36 district attorneys with a voice in the Legislature. When we advocate for things opposed by the vast majority of other DAs, that headwind it makes it much harder to succeed in shifting state policy. Unlike my opponent, I am committed to staying at the table within the state DA association to shift their perspectives and find agreement for the sensible changes we’ll need to make.
Within the Multnomah County budget process, I believe strongly we need a stronger public advocate for public safety dollars. Health, social services, emergency management, services for people experiencing homelessness are all worthy priorities competing for resources. That is why we need a DA that can argue for the impact of proper funding for public safely - to fund things like staffing for alternative courts that can help get people into addiction and mental health treatment, a pre-trial supervision program to replace cash bail, and reentry programs for past offenders looking to become productive members of society again. Our County Commission will be faced with hard decisions. They deserve a District Attorney who will make the public case for the value in investing in these safety programs.
SCHMIDT: First and foremost, the District Attorney’s office must always prioritize the most serious cases, such as violent crimes, domestic violence, and sexual assaults. The job of the District Attorney is to keep their community safe, and that means prioritizing prosecution of those who truly pose a public safety risk.
The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office is underfunded relative to similarly sized DA’s offices around the country, and that’s a problem. Driving down the cost of the public safety system is one of my goals, but this shouldn’t be done at the expense of the ability to thoughtfully resolve criminal cases. Our prison costs are ballooning. Oregon was on track to open a new prison in 2017 at a cost to taxpayers of at least $250 million, until the legislature stepped in with legislation to manage costs. I worked with the legislature to help develop and implement this and other legislation designed to make our system fairer, more data-driven, more cost effective and more just. By investing in community-based alternatives and prioritizing treatment over incarceration, we can keep costs down and improve public safety outcomes.
I am also very supportive of the Portland Street Response Team initiative, championed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. I believe that using social workers and health care outreach to manage low level incidents without law enforcement involvement makes a lot of sense when done correctly, and in some cases could help sidestep the criminal justice system all together. This could also have significant benefits for our houseless population and individuals suffering from mental illness - two populations who historically have been heavily impacted by disproportionate enforcement in our justice system.
Finally, I have pledged not to seek the death penalty if elected. There are many valid reasons to oppose the death penalty, but the financial waste involved is high among them. Consider that Oregon currently has a moratorium on executions, and in the last 60 years has only followed through on death sentences twice - both times by individuals who desired to be executed. This futile pursuit of the death penalty costs taxpayers a tremendous amount and diverts resources that could be better used elsewhere. According to research from Lewis & Clark Law School, a death penalty case can cost $1 million more than a non-death penalty aggravated murder case.
MERCURY: The Gresham Police Department has started using body-worn cameras, and Portland police officers may start using them soon as well. These cameras put a strain on resources and time for the DA’s office. Do you think they are worth it, and how would you make sure the camera footage helps the county’s justice system more than it hinders it?
KNIGHT: I think they can provide an objective record to address questions of bias and conduct. But they also must be adopted in ways that address privacy and civil liberty concerns. I look forward to working with all stakeholders to ensure we reach the right alignment of policy and a reasonable allocation of resources.
SCHMIDT: Yes, ultimately I believe body-worn cameras (BWC) are worth it. However, I acknowledge that the recent research studying the benefits of BWC is mixed. ... I also recognize that reviewing camera footage, often from the perspectives of multiple officers in a single incident, can result in more work for both prosecutors and defense attorneys, but the kind of evidence provided by this camera footage can be invaluable in a prosecutor’s ability to bring a case or in a defense attorney’s ability to argue for their client.
This is another example of a place where I think the data should drive the policy. Like any other public safety strategy, we should be clear upfront about our goals in making the change, determine how to measure whether or not we are meeting the goals of the community once the change is made, and then reevaluate periodically whether the benefit is worth the cost (e.g. less use of force by police, fewer citizen complaints regarding police, higher case closure rates, greater criminal justice system legitimacy, etc.). We should also learn from the many jurisdictions across the country who have already faced the same issues, and make sure that we have the necessary policies in place to allow us to meet the goals we have for the program.
MERCURY: Last question: According to a recent report, black adults were 8.3 times more likely to held in jail before their trial date than white adults in Multnomah County in 2019. Multnomah County has been aware of these disparities since at least 2015, so why do you think they continue to exist? What would you do to reduce them in your role as DA?
KNIGHT: Yes, we know that significant racial disparities exist across the institutions of our criminal justice system. Reflecting structurally racist inequities in our education, health care, and economic systems, no one policy is going to eliminate the disparities in our criminal justice system. There are a number of steps we can take to reduce the levels of disparity and the impacts they have on communities of color.
We can ensure we are attentive to data on encounters with law enforcement, arrests, sentencing, and length of stay in incarcerations to reveal how biases are operating and work to correct them. We can establish and expand interventions to mitigate the impact of how these social disparities contribute to people entering the system, using tools like mental health and drug treatment courts as alternatives to incarceration to get people out of the cycle of recidivism. We can expand the diversity of the staff in the District Attorney’s office to support a better understanding and appreciation for how circumstances can lead someone to enter the system and the best approach for handling cases.
And finally, we can replace cash bail with a system that prioritizes identifying those individuals with the biggest risk of reoffending while awaiting a trial and those most at risk for failing to appear for a court date. That is the system I currently work with at the federal level, and is also finding success in other jurisdictions. But it must be done in a thoughtful way that includes the resources to ensure proper supervision and case management of released defendants awaiting trial.
SCHMIDT: Addressing racial disparities in our criminal justice system has been one of the primary focuses of my work at the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2355, which reduced the penalty for possession from a felony to a misdemeanor for a person’s first two charges. One important reason for making this change was that data compiled by my agency clearly showed racial disparity in who was being charged and held on these crimes. In the years since then, I’ve directed a continuing project at the CJC to try and root out disparities and identify the reasons behind them in our statewide pretrial system. Unfortunately, the disparity you mention here has not narrowed enough since being identified in 2015, so I am convinced that the current strategy being applied by the Multnomah County District Attorney is in need of revision.
Racial disparities infect almost every level of the criminal justice system, and the reasons are complex. Disparities in policing, educational opportunities, prosecutorial discretion, socio-economic opportunity, all form a complex web of factors that can lead to very unfair outcomes. In my platform, I have outlined several policies and priorities that I believe will help us chip away at the inequity. Specifically, I pledge to:
• Use data to inform my office’s policies and examine outcomes to ensure we are not creating disparities based on race.
• Not pursue the death penalty, as research shows it is biased, costly, ineffective as a deterrent - and sometimes we get it wrong.
• Advocate to end cash bail, which often keeps low-risk people in jail unnecessarily - all because they do not have a few hundred dollars to bail out.
• Advocate against Measure 11’s mandatory minimum sentences in Multnomah County and in Oregon.
• Form a task force to rewrite the DA’s office policy manual with input from community groups - and specifically communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.
I know this conversation won’t stop at the conclusion of this campaign, and if elected, I pledge to continue to reach out to those affected communities—in an effort to rebuild trust and seek additional solutions.