IN OCTOBER, a Multnomah County employee traveled to Las Vegas to air Portland’s dirty laundry.
But the information Lamb had gone to share with her wonky cohort was sensitive. For about a year, she had been plugging numbers from the courts, prosecutors, and county jail into Tableau’s software. What had emerged was a “racial and ethnic disparity dashboard” that allowed Lamb to drill down into the data and come away with some dispiriting findings about how people of color fare in Portland’s justice system.
“I’m just gonna warn you,” she said at one point during her October 10 talk, “this is going to be pretty depressing.”
The presentation Lamb gave that day has since attained a quiet infamy in the local justice system. Her use of their data so angered judges and other officials that Lamb’s boss wound up asking that a recording of it be taken off of Tableau’s website (the Mercury obtained a copy via Oregon’s public records law). Data analysts in the courts system worked up a presentation of their own to poke holes in Lamb’s conclusions.
Officials insist they have no issue with Multnomah County’s disparities being aired publicly, but they say Lamb had no right to use the data—the subject of multiple complex intergovernmental agreements—without permission. And they question whether she even painted an accurate picture.
“The only thing worse than no analysis is bad analysis, and public bad analysis is the worst of all,” Ed Jones, the county’s chief criminal judge, told the Mercury. “There is a need for community discussion of [racial and ethnic disparities] and what can be done about it, but that discussion has to be driven by good rather than half-assed analysis.”
“She was not authorized to use that data and that platform for public consumption,” says District Attorney Rod Underhill.
The gist of the data Lamb laid out in her 53-minute talk won’t come as a surprise to most Portlanders. She told her audience (and anyone watching online) that Black people here are 4.2 times more likely to be booked into jail than white people. Once in jail, she said, Black inmates and other people of color stay days longer on average than white people. They are released on their own recognizance less often than white people.
Lamb pulled up charts that showed people of color are disproportionately likely to have charges against them pursued by prosecutors (4.6 times more likely than whites in the case of Black defendants), and to receive prison sentences. That “pretty depressing” stat Lamb mentioned? Black people are 52.8 times more likely than whites to be charged with cocaine possession in Multnomah County, according to her presentation.
They weren’t heartening figures, but they weren’t shocking either. In 2016, the MacArthur Foundation released a report turning up findings of racial disparities in Portland’s justice system. A series in the Portland Tribune earlier this year continued to unearth racial inequities.
Even so, local officials pushed back against what they say was an overly negative and misleading characterization. “I think we expressed our distress,” is how Multnomah County Presiding Judge Nan Waller puts it.
Asked about the presentation—and Jones’ comment about “half-assed” analysis—Waller and the county’s trial court administrator, Barbara Marcille, showed the Mercury charts created by analysts for the courts. They say Lamb’s conclusions were misleading because she spoke of sweeping disparities in instances where sample sizes are too small to reach such a conclusion.
One example: Lamb’s presentation showed that Black defendants are 1.8 times more likely than whites to receive probation for the crime of interfering with public transportation (or IPT, a misdemeanor that can include fare evasion, among other things).
“That is not only costly to our system but that now goes on their record,” Lamb told her audience.
According to Waller and Marcille, the contention is misleading. They say a total of six Black defendants were given probation for IPT during the time period Lamb discussed—a number small enough that they believe drawing conclusions is unfair.
They make the same argument for other points, too. For instance: Lamb’s finding that Black people with extensive criminal histories were 1.42 times more likely than white defendants with similar histories to receive prison sentences for new offenses. Marcille says that conclusion was based on 17 cases (higher sample sizes from past years indicated lesser disparity).
“When you’re talking about massive disparity you wouldn’t really use that term to talk about 17 people,” Marcille said. “There were a lot of inaccuracies in what was shown and what was stated.” (Lamb did not respond to our inquiry on the presentation.)
Underhill, too, questions figures in the presentation. He showed the Mercury emails from earlier this year in which Lamb suggested the DA’s office seemed to be reducing disparities in prison sentences for Black defendants. The same figure, shown in Vegas, suggested that disparities were actually increasing.
Stats aside, local justice officials stewed over the tone of the Vegas presentation, which insinuated that officials are reticent to share data about racial bias.
“It is not public yet. That’s because it has been a really big challenge to try to build support,” Lamb told her audience. “It’s not because people are trying to hide anything. This is just really sensitive to the people who are going to be held accountable by the system I’ve created.”
She suggested her insistence on unveiling these disparities had made her unpopular with local policy makers.
All of this proved controversial back in Portland. Before long, the video had resulted in a series of heated phone calls. Abbey Stamp, Lamb’s boss, eventually demanded the presentation be taken offline.
“The data and the tool presented were not finalized,” Stamp says. “It was a draft, and meant to be changed and improved prior to full dissemination.”
This isn’t the first time Lamb’s findings have caused a stir. Last year, Willamette Week reported that she’d been laid off from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office shortly after producing a report on racial disparities in the jail. Several officials opined at the time that the layoff seemed suspicious, noting that the report wasn’t initially released to the public.
But local justice officials asked about the Vegas presentation were keen to speak with the Mercury—largely to insist they’re not trying to cover anything up.
Underhill, Stamp, Waller, and Marcille all say the subject of racial disparities is an ever-present topic in meetings. They point to programs like the recently launched Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program that aims to reduce inequities in drug enforcement. Underhill notes that he responded to persistent disparities in who was prosecuted for IPT earlier this year by treating those cases with more lenience.
“I’ve gotten up in a lot of presentations and said we’ve got disparities in the criminal justice system... and we absolutely need to commit and we need data to hold ourselves accountable,” Waller says.
Still, it’s unclear whether the dashboard Lamb presented in Vegas will ultimately become public—and so allow citizens to track disparities in how people of color are treated. Officials who spoke with the Mercury all voiced hope that it would be, but stopped short of making promises, noting difficulties in data sharing and of achieving unambiguous stats.
Lamb says the information needs to get out there.
“The criminal justice system in this country is broken for many of our populations,” she told her Vegas audience. “My role is to point out when those problems are occurring and force people to listen.... I will continue to do that because that’s how I think we’re going to change this broken system.”