OREGON DISTRICT ATTORNEYS
The Mission of the Oregon District Attorney is to uphold the laws and Constitution of the State of Oregon and the United States Constitution, to preserve the safety of the public, to protect the rights of crime victims, and to pursue justice for all with skill, honor and integrity.
MYTHS vs. FACTS
There is a lot of misinformation floating around these days on many topics, and the justice system is no exception. While we certainly respect all viewpoints and opinions, some information we’ve seen recently is just plain false. Here we take a moment to explode some myths.
CLICK ON A MYTH BELOW TO FIND OUT THE FACTS
MYTH: Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. In fact, their power is pretty much unlimited.
FACT: The criminal justice system in the United States is deliberately set up with checks and balances in an effort to be as just as humanly possible. Each stakeholder in the criminal justice system has distinct powers and limitations. These powers and limitations are designed to prevent the concentration of power in any one stakeholder.
MYTH: District Attorneys have too much power.
FACT: The functions and authority of prosecutors are outlined in Oregon state law. The district attorney in each county is the public prosecutor therein and has the authority to appear and prosecute violations of the charter and ordinances of any city provided the circuit court for the county has jurisdiction with respect to violations of the charter and ordinances of each such city. In cities of a population of more than 300,000 the district attorney shall be responsible for the prosecution of all city ordinance violations. [Amended by 1971 c.633 §14; 1995 c.658 §21]
Prosecutors do not arrest people. Nor do they make the laws that they are required to follow and they do not sentence people.
See more about how the state of Oregon outlines the role of the DA here
MYTH: Defense attorneys and prosecutors are equally interested in seeking the truth.
FACT: Under the American legal system, prosecutors and defense attorneys have very different roles and obligations. Prosecutors are legally charged with pursuing justice by seeking the truth in every case and by protecting the rights of victims, defendants and the state. Defense attorneys have a single focus: They are charged with zealously representing their client, regardless of whether their client is innocent or guilty.
MYTH: No one in Oregon knows who their prosecutor is or what they do.
FACT: We believe most Oregonians are thoughtful, intelligent and informed voters who have at least general idea about the prosecutor’s role in the criminal justice system. And it’s our hope that reading this website will not only increase the public’s knowledge but help them make smart hiring decisions.
MYTH: Prosecutors work in secrecy and they aren’t open about what they do.
FACT: The vast majority of the work District Attorneys do is out in the open. Courtrooms are public, our records are public, and the media covers our work extensively. However, there are some limited times when a prosecutor cannot speak publicly about a case. This is either to protect the integrity of an investigation, or to protect the defendants right to a fair trial. Other than that, we are an open book. The public can utilize Oregon’s open records laws to request documents and information. In fact, you should visit your local prosecutor some time! They would love to see you and answer any questions you have.
MYTH: Prosecutors are not accountable to anyone.
FACT: The exact opposite is true. Prosecutors are more accountable than any other elected official, and any other stakeholder in the criminal justice system. There are laws, ethical obligations and other oversights to ensure prosecutors are acting legally. All prosecutors are subject to very strict ethical regulations from the Oregon State Bar. Any deviation from the established requirements can result in disciplinary actions and sanctions against the prosecutor, including the potential for disbarment.
Prosecutors conduct their work in a highly visible way. Literally everything we do is subject to scrutiny. Every trial is open to the public, as is every court file. Records in the prosecutor’s office are considered public and may be sought via a “sunshine” request. The media spends a large part of its time reporting on criminal cases. Because of our adversarial system, defense attorneys scrutinize every action that prosecutors take discharging their duties. In fact, it is the defense attorneys job to hold the prosecutor accountable by challenging actions and bringing concerns forward to the judge presiding over the case.
Prosecutors are also accountable to the court. The trial and appellate judges review every action that prosecutors take and will take action if a prosecutor violates the law. Prosecutors are also accountable to the victims and witnesses they work with, who are able to observe first-hand the manner in which the prosecutor does his job. Finally, prosecutors are accountable to the community. They are elected by the people, and they must re-apply for their jobs every four years.
MYTH: There are not enough checks and balances for prosecutors are behaving ethically.
FACT: The job of a prosecutor is the most accountable position in the criminal justice system. This oversight by citizens, voters, defense attorneys, judges, the state appellate system, rules of ethics and state law have been designed intentionally to hold prosecutors accountable for their actions, judgement and decisions. Prosecutors are required to make legal decisions based upon the law and evidence.
MYTH: Prosecutors often hide evidence that is favorable to the defendant or hurts their case.
FACT: Prosecutors are required by law to proactively disclose any evidence that could hurt their case to the defendant’s attorney. Failure to do so can result in disciplinary action by the Oregon State Bar.
MYTH: Prosecutors are resistant to any change in the criminal justice system. In other words, DA s in Oregon are roadblocks to reform.
FACT: Oregon DA s have always been leaders in reforming our criminal laws in order to protect the rights of victims and defendants. Compared to the 1980’s Oregon is now one of the nation’s safest states. It was not an accidental turnaround; but instead reflects decades of hard work by dedicated public officials and citizens who recognized that our safety is the cornerstone to the vitality of our communities.
For a more complete view of the role Oregon prosecutors have had in the evolution of the criminal justice system in Oregon, here is a link to a full report.
MYTH: Prosecutors are not open to methods such as prevention, diversion and treatment rather than just sending them to prison.
FACT: Nothing could be further from the truth. Oregon DAs have been leaders in creating and utilizing alternative sentencing, diversion, specialty courts and treatment programs designed to keep people out of prison. Oregon’s state criminal justice system is one of the most common ways people with substance abuse issues get the help they need and for those with mental illness to be connected with the services they require.
Contrary to what some people think, prosecutors don’t take pleasure in sending people to prison. They understand the serious impact prison has on individuals and their families. Sometimes justice means asking a judge to send a violent offender to prison so they don’t hurt others. Sometimes justice is declining to file charges where there is insufficient evidence or someone’s rights were violated.
Prosecutors have a legal and ethical duty to do their job to keep the public safe. In some cases, the only way to do that is to separate dangerous people from the public so they can’t hurt others.
Oregon’s prosecutors seek justice, not prison time. This often means offering diversion to a person to avoid getting a conviction that will follow them the rest of their life. And, sometimes justice is reviewing a prior conviction when new evidence is discovered.
MYTH: Prosecutors are only interested in getting a conviction.
FACT: Prosecutors are legally charged with pursuing justice. This can mean choosing not to charge a case because of insufficient evidence or concern over the credibility of a witness or victim even if they believe a suspect is guilty. In addition, at any time during the course of prosecution, if a prosecutor determines he can’t prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, he can and will dismiss an existing case.
MYTH: Prosecutors don’t care about the defendant as a person.
FACT: People who traditionally go into this kind of work are very compassionate people, which is why they fight so hard to pursue justice. While DA s work hard to remove dangerous and violent criminals from our streets, they also realize that prison is not the answer for everyone. Oregon DA s routinely seek probation, a treatment court or other alternative to prison because they believe that people have the ability to change and become productive members of society.
MYTH: Prosecutors are responsible for “mass incarceration.”
FACT: Prosecutors are stakeholders in a system with many parts. While they prosecute violations of the law, they do not control the police, they do not create the law or the punishment for violating the law. They do not sentence defendants, nor do they control any programs in jail or prison that are designed to reduce recidivism.
Prosecutors may only charge someone with a crime if they have evidence under the law that can prove a person violated Oregon criminal law. The Oregon state legislature is 100% accountable for all state statutes and criminal laws. What’s more, the legislature also sets the punishment attached to all violations of criminal law in Oregon.
Prosecutors have no power to convict or incarcerate. In our legal system, only the judge and/or a jury have the power to find someone guilty of a crime and impose a sentence. While the prosecutor may recommend a sentence, the judge is free to disregard this advice and to sentence the individual within the punishment set forth by the state legislature.
Finally, as anyone who’s ever watched the intro to the TV show “Law and Order” knows, the police and the District Attorneys are two separate and independent agencies. DA s work closely with their local law enforcement, but in a completely independent way. Police do the majority of criminal investigations and determine who to arrest. DA s determine if police have gathered enough information to charge someone. DA s also can’t stop police from making an arrest.
So, when we examine the issues surrounding the number of people in prison, it is important to remember that the criminal justice system is just that – a system. No one stakeholder has the power to impact incarceration levels on their own.
MYTH: Oregon prosecutors are too eager to put people behind bars when it’s clear they have mental health issues, they are drug abusers or they are homeless.
FACT: Our prosecutors care deeply about the welfare of all Oregonians, especially those in need of assistance. People with mental health issues, drug additions or 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.
MYTH: The Oregon prisons are filled with non-violent, first time offenders.
FACT: Seventy-five percent of people convicted of a felony, which are the more serious charges, never go to prison. Of those people in prison, 70% are there because they committed a violent offense. Only 7% for any kind of drug crime, and that is typically either for repeated distribution or someone who has multiple drug convictions and doesn’t seek assistance through local drug courts.
MYTH: Prosecutors always try to get the maximum sentence.
FACT: Prosecutors base their recommendations on what is in the interests of justice. 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 will seek a high sentence. However, for low level felonies, prosecutors may seek diversion, probation or other alternatives to incarceration.
MYTH: People of color sentenced more harshly in Oregon than white people.
FACT: Prosecutors do not sentence people, judges do. Prosecutors do make sentencing recommendations to the judge. Our sentencing recommendations are based on the type of crime, the criminal history of the defendant, historical sentences for like crimes, the law and the interests of justice. Race, gender, sexual orientation, occupation or social status do not play any role in sentencing recommendations made by prosecutors.
Judges are free to disregard the recommendations made by prosecutors, and they do that to varying degrees throughout each jurisdiction. At this time, there is no data that show Oregon’s judges sentenced individuals more harshly because of their race or ethnic background.
MYTH: Prosecutors won’t charge police officers with misconduct if they abuse, hurt or kill a citizen.
FACT: Oregon DAs take very seriously their responsibility to pursue charges if warranted without regard to a defendant’s occupation. All Oregon jurisdictions have a protocol that outlines how investigations into officers are conducted. Holding police officers accountable for violating Oregon law is an important function of Oregon District Attorneys. If you are interested in the activities of your local prosecutor, we suggest you contact your elected District Attorney for more information.