Q&A: Brian Decker favors 'holistic approach to public safety'
From day one, Beaverton public defender Brian Decker has molded his platform for the Washington County District Attorney seat on criminal justice reform, seeking to unseat incumbent Kevin Barton.
He's received endorsements from a number of prominent progressives in Washington County, including Beaverton Mayor Lacey Beaty and state Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, who represents a swath of Washington County that includes some of the Westside's poorest neighborhoods.
Before moving to Oregon, Decker served as a prosecutor for the United States Attorney's Office in Tucson, Arizona, where he tried eight federal felony jury trials involving drugs and human trafficking, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Decker threw his hat in the race in September. He's vocal about doing away with the "law and order" mindset on crime politics, and he's critical of the way Barton runs his office.
In 2018, Barton clobbered another progressive opponent, Max Wall, with 68.4% of the vote. Wall entered the race just 10 weeks before the election.
We spoke with Decker on the phone to learn more about his views on reforming the courts system, restorative justice and what role a district attorney should play in reinventing public safety.
The following interview was cut for clarity and brevity.
Pamplin Media: You've stated multiple times in your campaign messaging that your experience as both a prosecutor and public defender gives you a unique perspective on the criminal justice system. How does this perspective inform your platform?
Decker: I've also served as a lawyer representing victims, and also served as a law clerk, assisting the judge. And I think this breadth of experience lets me look at the system from all sides, and not get sucked into tunnel vision, and thinking about the system from one individual perspective with one individual agenda.
So having that breadth of experience and looking at things from different angles is the reason that I'm focusing on policies like having a holistic approach to public safety — one that doesn't very narrowly define safety in terms of numbers of convictions and length of sentences and the appearance of toughness. Instead, one that tries to attack the root causes and crime before it starts.
It's one of the reasons that one of my main policy goals is transparency for the office. So that people who do have different perspectives can hold the office accountable for the consequences of the decisions that it makes, and make sure that those decisions do have outcomes that meet their goals.
It's one of the reasons that I'm promoting restorative justice as an alternative in cases where it's appropriate over incarceration, because that is one option that can be available to victims, and promote victim satisfaction over what can sometimes be traumatic, traditional criminal prosecution.
Pamplin Media: Can you explain to me what restorative justice means to you? How would the District Attorney's Office implement restorative justice when prosecuting cases?
Decker: Restorative justice can be available in certain cases as an alternative to traditional prosecution, and incarceration.
It is essentially a mediation between the victim and the person who harms that victim, where they come to the table — sometimes literally to the same table. The survivor gets to speak their truth about what this harm was and what it did. And the person who's responsible is held to real accountability in the form of explaining the context, or what led them to make this harmful decision, making amends for that decision and taking whatever steps are necessary to help the victim heal.
Also taking whatever steps are necessary to get that responsible person into the services that they need, or whatever assistance they need to make sure that they never repeat criminal behavior again.
In places where these programs have been implemented as an alternative alongside prosecution in court, it has led to lower recidivism rates that we desperately need in Washington County, since we have the highest recidivism rate in the metro area
Pamplin Media: What does restorative justice look like when a violent crime like sexual assault and murder happens? How do you weigh the needs or concerns of survivors/families with the needs and rights of the defendant?
Decker: Well, I want to be clear that restorative justice is not appropriate for all cases. It's going to be appropriate for certain crimes, only where the victim is participating in it. And even in those cases, I think there's probably some crimes where it's not appropriate.
For instance, where the person who committed the crime is so dangerous, that they need to be held in prison and held away from the rest of us. Those wouldn't be appropriate cases for the kind of restorative justice program that I'm talking about.
But as I said, I know that in all cases, whether they are prosecuted and they go to prison, or lead through a restorative justice program, the DA has the duty to stand up for the rights of victims and actually listen to the wishes of victims.
The interest of victims in a given case may not align with the interests of prosecution, but victims always have to have a say in a case and have their feelings heard.
All too often under the current approach, victims are convenient for prosecution where they are approaching things from the perspective of seeking conviction and seeking the longest possible sentence, but sometimes the victims' feelings run the gamut.
Pamplin Media: One of your main criticisms of your opponent, Kevin Barton, is that he publicly claims to embrace reform efforts but secretly obstructs them behind closed doors. Can you give me some examples of what you mean by that?
Decker: Barton talks about having outreach to the community and listening to what the community wants in terms of responsible reform efforts.
But here in Washington County, the voters voted overwhelmingly in favor of the drug decriminalization and treatments ballot measure last year. Kevin Barton has been opposed to it, and continues to be opposed to it, even after the will of the voters.
He also — either himself, through ODAA, or through his surrogates — will go down to Salem and testify in opposition to pretty much every criminal justice reform bill that would impact the ability of the DA's Office to have the leverage of overcharged extremely long sentences in order to extract plea agreements from from the people that are charged.
He's one of the leaders in the state In obstructing those kinds of reform measures in Salem. But the voters in Washington County have, by and large, sent down a delegation that wants to move forward with criminal justice reform and wants to see accountability.
In cases of police misconduct, Washington County wants to see an overhaul of the war on drugs and do away with the crime politics have decades past.
Kevin Barton hasn't learned those hard lessons the rest of us have about the need for change in the criminal justice system.
Pamplin Media: You've been practicing law in Oregon for just under five years. Your opponent, meanwhile, was born and raised here and already served as a prosecutor in the Washington County DA's Office. How would you respond to critics who might say you don't have enough knowledge/background on the nuances of Oregon law, specifically Washington County issues, to be qualified for this role?
Decker: I've been living and breathing legal issues In Washington County for the past four years, day in, and day out. I've been going into the Washington County Circuit Court, practicing on the hundreds of cases that were filed by the Washington County District Attorney's Office.
What I bring to the table before that is diversity of experience from other jurisdictions that has informed my practice and informed my vision of what is possible in terms of policy and law.
Pamplin Media: You've criticized Barton for preventing more non-unanimous convictions ahead of the recent Ramos Supreme Court decision. You also told Pamplin Media Group (recently) that the DA should review old cases to "undo unjust outcomes." What would that process look like? How would you best prioritize old cases?
Decker: There are people still serving sentences or who still have convictions on the books or actions that are no longer crime in Oregon. There are people whose cases have resulted in new knowledge and new evidence, where science has advanced, and we've learned new truths.
All of those things have led to unjust outcomes in certain cases in the past, and the legislature passed a bill this past session that gives district attorneys the authority to review such old cases and seek whatever corrective action is necessary, to make sure that those outcomes, end up being just.
Pamplin Media: You've publicly said that investing more in communities and public services is the best way to reduce crime and incarceration rates, but the systemic implementation of bolstering community services is generally left up to policymakers. How would you, in your role as district attorney, seek to bring about these changes?
Decker: You're absolutely right. As district attorney, I can't just go implement a housing program. I can't just go implement my own treatment program. but I can be a public advocate for such things.
Another way the district attorney needs to play a role in that vision of crime prevention, as opposed to just crime reaction, is by recognizing some of the excesses of the criminal justice system in the way that it is swung so far toward mass incarceration.
The past few decades have led to very harmful results for certain communities. And so, in some cases, what the district attorney can best do is to make sure that the criminal justice system is not a barrier to access to resources; to get out of the way and not act as a gatekeeper that prevents people from getting into the services that they need.
Pamplin Media: If elected, do you think you'd make personnel changes in the office and add folks who align with more progressive views on criminal justice?
Decker: When I was an assistant United States attorney, I worked with career prosecutors who took their duties seriously and were accustomed to changes in policy that would follow federal elections.
I'd like to believe that the attorneys currently in their positions in Washington County can likewise execute their duties as professionals and adapt when the voters demand policy changes that move the county forward.
Pamplin Media: How do you intend on appealing to voters who generally don't participate in DA elections?
Decker: The first thing I'm going to do is listen to voters. And I'm going to work with community groups to get out the vote and to have a conversation about the effects of the recent approach to criminal justice on the lives of folks across our county.
Pamplin Media: Is there anything else the community should know about you and what you're fighting for?
Decker: I intend to fight for a holistic approach to public safety, that addresses the root causes of crime, and treat public health problems with public health solutions. I intend to fight for a real restorative justice program as an alternative where appropriate.
And I intend to fight for transparency for the office, so that the decisions that the office makes are available to the public for scrutiny and the office can be held to account by the community.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated Kevin Barton and Max Wall's vote totals in the 2018 election. Barton received 68.4% of the vote, defeating Wall by a 37-point margin. The story has been corrected.
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