A handful of local advocacy and nonprofit groups are denouncing a recent budget increase for  the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to pay for an anticipated uptick in criminal prosecutions of drug crimes.

A letter signed by Safety and Justice Oregon, Portland for All, Next Up Action Fund, Unite Oregon, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, and the Oregon Food Bank was sent to County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson on Thursday. It addresses a quiet move by DA-elect Nathan Vasquez to request roughly $900,000 in additional funds for the DA’s office, to cover staffing and related resources for prosecuting gun violence and drug crimes.

As reported in The Oregonian, the funding ask from Vasquez was to cover additional staffing in the DA’s office, including an attorney dedicated to drug distribution cases, as well as another who will oversee cases where a defendant is offered diversion in the form of drug treatment. Vasquez told the media outlet that the current budget allotment isn't enough.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Nathan Vasquez
will take over as the new Multnomah County DA
in January 2025. Multnomah county

Multnomah County’s $3.9 billion budget includes an additional $782,000 (not the full amount requested) in funds for the district attorney’s office, as well as funding for a new 24-hour sobering center, and expanded homeless shelter funding, among other things.

The money wasn’t requested by current DA Mike Schmidt, who indicated previously that the current budget should be enough to cover an uptick in prosecutions triggered by House Bill 4002, which overturned Oregon’s decriminalization measure.

Opponents say Vasquez appears eager to begin prosecuting lower level drug offenses when he takes office in January. By then, HB 4002 will be in effect.

In addition to once again making it a misdemeanor crime to possess a controlled substance, HB 4002 also includes some elements of Oregon’s initial drug decriminalization measure. The new legislation makes it easier for anyone struggling with addiction to obtain and afford substance use disorder medication. It also encourages police and prosecutors to offer offenders a chance at a drug treatment program, in lieu of jail time. 

It also allocates $25 million toward diversion and treatment programs.

“With his request, Nathan Vasquez wants to subvert the will of the legislature by criminalizing more people struggling with addiction before HB 4002 is even implemented—a move that shows Nathan Vasquez’s commitment to ramping up the war on drugs, and that oversteps both the official start of HB 4002 implementation and his tenure as District Attorney,” the joint letter reads.

HB 4002 was crafted as a response to skyrocketing overdoses and public drug use, but Oregon’s recriminalization also comes as the state is facing a severe shortage of public defenders to represent people charged with crimes who can’t afford an attorney. Organizations like Safety and Justice Oregon say criminalizing addiction when court cases are routinely thrown out due to the public defender shortage, is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“I think for us the diversion of funds into things that don't really help people heal and thrive is the problem,” Shannon Wight, deputy director of Safety and Justice Oregon, told the Mercury. “We need to preserve the investments of measure 110 to keep investing in treatment.”

In a statement released by Safety and Justice, Wight called Vasquez’s request “inappropriate.” 

“Vasquez went behind the back of the sitting district attorney, and he made the last-minute funding request behind closed doors so that community members were not given time to respond and oppose the move," Wight said. "We need affordable housing, outreach services, and addiction treatment—not to mention hiring defense attorneys to respond to the impending surge of unnecessary court cases and resources to the Black and brown communities that will be most harmed by recriminalization.”

Vasquez did not immediately respond to questions from the Mercury. It's unclear if the incoming DA plans to heavily pursue misdemeanor-level drug offenses. 

Vasquez campaigned on a perceived lack of prosecutions by the current DA, though data from the county shows prosecutions were up last year, compared to years prior.

Wight says Vasquez is trying to usurp the standard budget process in a move that shields him from transparency or public scrutiny.

In a message to constituents Thursday, Multnomah County Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards said the additional $782,000 for the DA’s office will fund “resources for the prosecution of drug crimes, gun violence crimes, juvenile case management, and increased victim assistance services.”