OREGON DISTRICT ATTORNEYS
CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUES
There has been a lot of conversation in Oregon and across the United States about the criminal justice system. Some people think the system is broken while others believe that the current low levels of violent crime in Oregon are proof the system is working the way it’s supposed to work.
Regardless of one’s position on the issues, Oregon DAs believe it’s important to help clarify where we stand on the issues facing our communities.
The Criminal Justice System
While every crime takes a toll on our communities, compared to the 1980’s, Oregon is now one of the nation’s safest states. This progress was not an accidental turnaround; but instead reflects decades of hard work by dedicated and innovative Oregon prosecutors, law enforcement officials, state legislators and citizens who recognized that our safety is the cornerstone to the vitality of our communities.
For decades, Oregon District Attorneys have been leading the charge to ensure that our criminal justice system is a reflection of the values of the people of Oregon. The people of Oregon elect their local district attorneys and they choose people who represent their ideals of communities. For a more complete view of the innovative role Oregon prosecutors have had in the Oregon criminal justice system, here is a link to a
More recently, some of the basic tenants of our democracy such as a free press and the prosecutor’s role in prioritizing public safety are under attack. There has been a wave of organizations that are penetrating states like Oregon, California and Massachusetts with specific ideology of how they believe the criminal justice system should operate. A concern many Oregon residents have, is that many of these ideas come from outside our state and they may not reflect the values of Oregonians.
Truth in Sentencing
The term “truth in sentencing” represents a core value for victims and for prosecutors. Truth in sentencing protects public confidence in our justice system. It prevents what are referred to as “back door releases,” which occur out of the view of the public and victims and often even the courts.
Examples of such policies are good time, expanded earned time, transitional leave and work release programs, each of which result in offenders serving sentences that are shorter
than those announced in court at the time of sentencing.
In 1989 democratic Governor Neil Goldschmidt implemented Oregon’s Sentencing Guidelines, which was the first important step towards protecting the integrity of court-ordered sentences. Prior to 1989, Oregon operated under what was called an “indeterminate sentencing” structure in which the sentence ordered by the court was never enforced. In that system, the Board of Parole in Salem had virtually unlimited authority to grant “good time,” thereby drastically reducing court-ordered sentences outside the view of the court and victims.
The use of “good time” ended in 1989 for all newly sentenced offenders. Instead, under sentencing guidelines, inmates could only receive up to a 20% reduction
called (earned time) in their court ordered sentences and only under limited circumstances.
Finally, truth was restored as part of the court sentencing process. Measure 11, passed by the voters in 1994, further strengthened truth in sentencing through mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes.
Oregon’s Prison Population
There is much national talk about the country’s prison population and what it
means to various communities. To some, the term mass incarceration means that
too many low-level drug offenders and non-violent criminals are serving time in prison.
It’s important for the people of Oregon to understand the landscape of its current
prison population and future trends. Today Oregon’s incarceration rate remains
19.7% below the national average. Oregon has the second lowest jail population rate
in the nation, 42% below the national average.
In April 2005, a decade after the passage of Ballot Measure 11, the Oregon prison
forecast was estimated to be nearly 17,500 by 2016. Today it is under 14,800. And in
the next 10 years, Oregon’s overall incarceration rate is forecasted to drop 11.3%.
As prison beds were effectively used for violent felons, crime dropped. As crime
dropped, fewer prison beds were required. Today, contrary to popular belief, Oregon’s prison population is not exploding.
Violent Offenders Occupy Oregon’s Prisons
Oregon has prioritized its limited prison space for violent criminals better than any other
state. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oregon
leads all states in the percentage of its inmates that are incarcerated for a violent crime.
It is virtually impossible to go to prison in Oregon for using drugs. Oregon offenders
convicted of drug possession (heroin, methamphetamine, etc.) have been ineligible for a
prison sentence since 1989. As a result, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics,
Oregon ranks second to last in the percentage of inmates in prison for drug offenses.
The few incarcerated for drug offenses have been convicted of drug trafficking. Oregon is also a leader in the low percentage of felons sentenced to prison. Oregon only incarcerates approximately 25% of its convicted felons, ranking it 39th lowest amongst the 50 states. CHART.
In Oregon, only the most serious and violent older teenage criminal offenders face mandatory sentences. Older youth (ages 15 and up) face incarceration in a youth prison facility only upon conviction of the most serious degrees of rape, robbery and homicide. JUVENILE JUSTICE IN OREGON.
Each of Oregon’s 36 county criminal justice systems (often led by elected District Attorneys) has created a wide variety of community programs for various offenders, including drug courts, domestic violence diversion courts, mental health courts, community courts and other types of community-based diversion programs.
Officer-Involved Shootings (OIS)
Pursuant to Oregon law, District Attorneys have an oversight role in all homicides and this extends even to non-fatal Officer-involved shootings. Under Senate Bill 111 (2007), each District Attorney in the state, with the county Sheriff, is required to draft and submit a protocol for investigating officer involved shootings. Although the details may vary from county to county, each county/DA is required to adopt protocols which the various law enforcement agencies must sign onto, it must be approved by the local governing bodies, and ultimately it must be submitted to the Attorney General’s office.
Responsible transparency is critical to the public's relationship with the District Attorney. When a case is submitted to a grand jury for their review, the grand jury transcript may be released to the public upon request after a 10-day waiting period. This 10-day waiting period is designed to give a party related to the case (witness, officer, victim) 10 days to object to the release of a transcript. If there is no objection, the grand jury proceeding will be transcribed for release. Here is a REPORT by the Association of American Prosecutors that can provide more information.
Alternative Justice Solutions
Our prosecutors care deeply about the welfare of all Oregonians, especially those in need of assistance. People with mental health issues, drug addictions or who are homeless are accountable for their behavior under the law just like the rest of us. However, each county in Oregon has specific alternative sentencing programs like drug court, mental health court, DWI court, and veterans court that strive to keep people out of prison by providing solutions and resources to people who need the help the most.
Here are the programs at Multnomah County, and below are examples at other District Attorney Offices across the state:
Drug Treatment Court
Mental Health Court
Domestic Violence Court
Family Drug Court
Juvenile Accountability Court
DUI Diversion Court
Violation Eligible First-Time Offender Program
Early Resolution Docket
Neighborhood Livability Program
Pre-Trial Diversion Program
First-time Offender Programs
Fairness, Equity and Inclusion
Oregon DAs are absolutely committed to fairness, equity and inclusion for all citizens
of Oregon. DAs make charging decisions based solely on three criteria: the law, the
evidence and the interests of justice. Race is not a factor, nor is gender, sexual
orientation, occupation, social status or income level.
Prosecutors care about victims, defendants, and their families. While DAs work hard
to remove dangerous and violent criminals from our streets, they also realize that
prison is not the answer for many who are charged with lower-level crimes. Oregon
DAs routinely seek probation, treatment court or other alternatives-to-prison program because they believe that people have the ability to change and become productive members of society.
Although prosecutors do not sentence those convicted, when recommending an appropriate sentence to the judge, Oregon DAs make their suggestions based on the type of crime, the criminal history of the defendant and the interests of justice.
Believe it or not, restraint is one of the most powerful tools that a prosecutor has to improve our community. For a serious violent felony like a homicide, prosecutors often seek a high sentence. However, for low-level felonies, prosecutors may seek diversion, probation or various other alternatives to incarceration.
Confidence in the Criminal Justice System
Confidence in the criminal justice system has taken a hit nationally in the post-Ferguson environment. Today, a large sector of the public questions whether those sworn to uphold the constitution and serve and protect, are actually doing so.
Prosecutors understand their role in addressing the national public’s concern about police misconduct and criminal justice reform. Despite the care with which prosecutors have approached their work, including in officer-involved shootings, there is a perception
among many that prosecutors are only in it to win, rather than pursue justice. This perception stems directly from a lack of public understanding about the rigors of our legal system.
Although wrongful convictions remain rarer than ever, the media is focused on allegations of wrongful convictions for ratings and entertainment. This fosters much of the distrust in the criminal justice system. Under the guise of criminal justice reform, some are trying to define prosecutors in a light that is both unfavorable and inaccurate.
Prosecutors are taking an increased role in educating their communities on the realities of the criminal justice system and their role in seeking justice. This website is an example of the commitment of Oregon prosecutors to help provide important information and clarify much of the mis-information used by those with distinct agendas.
Crime and Its Impact on the Community
Victims, criminals, their families, neighbors and friends all suffer when crimes are committed – especially violent crimes that often alter forever the lives of so many people.
Today, some advocates have taken the approach to illustrate the need for reform by casting criminals in the role of the “victim.” While there are thousands upon thousands of heartbreaking stories behind the lives of those who choose to break the law, the “victimization” of criminals can be very dangerous.
As a just society, we must recognize the difference between victims of crime and those who violate the laws. If we normalize crime by making every offender a “victim” and minimize or neglect the devastating impact of real crime on real victims, then we risk blurring our community’s sense of right and wrong. Victims don’t choose to be crime victims. Criminals make the choice to break the law.
Our prosecutors care deeply about the welfare of all Oregonians, especially those in need of assistance. Every single day in courtrooms around the state, without fanfare or media attention, prosecutors are working to both bring justice to crime victims and do what can be done to utilize proven, cost-effective solutions to reducing crime and keeping people out of the criminal justice system. People with mental health issues, drug addictions or those who are homeless are accountable for their behavior under the law just like the rest of us. That’s why each county in Oregon has specific alternative sentencing programs like drug court, mental health court, DWI court, and veterans court that strive to keep people out of prison by providing solutions and resources to people who need the help the most.
Anyone who has watched the television show “Law and Order” has heard these words about the important checks and balances in the American legal system:
"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.”
Oregon’s criminal justice system follows this model. The police are the first actors on the scene in the criminal justice system. They investigate crimes and make arrests. Only then are cases referred to the District Attorneys for their review and charging decisions. It is not uncommon for District Attorneys to refer cases back to the submitting agency for further investigation. In fact, most offices have an initial declination rate of 20-30%.
By law, Oregon DAs must make charging decisions within 36 hours of a suspect’s arrest if the suspect is to remain in custody. Then, within five days of filing felony charges, Oregon DAs must present their case to either a judge or a grand jury (made up of a group of Oregon citizens selected by the court) who will review the prosecutor’s decision. If the judge in a preliminary hearing, or a grand jury believes there is sufficient evidence to file charges, then the judge or grand jury will sign an indictment, and the matter will continue through the criminal justice process.
A prosecutor’s role in the charging process is to also provide important checks and balances in arrests made by police. A significant number of criminal cases brought to prosecutors by police don’t get charged based upon various reasons such as insufficient evidence, lack of probable cause, and witness and/or victim cooperation. Prosecutors are both legally and ethically bound by very specific rules on what is required to charge someone with a crime.