Both WashCo DA candidates want 'reform' -- what's the difference?
District Attorney Kevin Barton and challenger Brian Decker have different ideas of how the justice system should work in Washington County, but both candidates use the same word in their campaigns: reform.
Barton wants "responsible reforms," and he points to the specialty prosecution units he has instituted for modernizing the office since he was elected in 2018.
Decker, who announced his bid for DA in September, has centered his platform on reforming the criminal justice system and reimagining safety and justice.
On his campaign website, Decker says he wants to institute changes in Washington County that prioritize crime prevention by addressing "root causes" like addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty. He also wants to include crime victims in the criminal justice process and offer alternatives to incarceration — in certain situations.
"We need to have courts and jails, and we need to hold dangerous people apart from the rest of us," Decker said, "but we shouldn't be incarcerating people where it's not necessary."
Decker points to restorative justice initiatives he says are already working. He mentioned Common Justice, a New York-based incarceration alternative that centers on the perspectives of crime victims, and California-based Impact Justice, which has a restorative justice project for technical assistance and training.
The challenger said he thinks Washington County is a good place to continue this trend.
"Washington County believes in reforming the criminal justice system," Decker said. "It's a county that has overwhelmingly elected progressives."
But Barton doesn't think that's what residents want, and Washington County shouldn't be "experimenting," he said.
"I think (residents) want a public safety system that keeps people safe, prosecutes crime and holds criminals accountable," Barton said.
Safety should be the primary goal of a DA, Barton said. And one thing he focuses on in his campaign is keeping Washington County away from "Portland's mistakes." Barton thinks Multnomah County's justice system is failing, and reforms like Decker's would do the same here, he said.
Decker acknowledged that he sees problems with how Portland's justice system, but he also sees communities elsewhere with examples of things that work.
"When I look at Washington County, and I see the problems that we have here, like the homelessness crisis and our own increasing gun violence," Decker said, "I know that we've got to make some changes to address those problems."
He and his family live in Washington County, he said, and he wants it to be a safe place to live, too.
"And that requires thinking clearly about solving problems, not just going to a place of fear, and saying we need to do the same thing over and over and over again," Decker said. "That has gotten us to where we are now."
While he's been in office, Barton has worked on what he calls "transformative criminal justice reform."
He has established specialty prosecution units including a domestic violence unit, a cold case unit for solving decades-old crimes and a bias crimes multidisciplinary team. He's also worked to implement specialty court programs, including a pilot program to provide treatment for criminal suspects who suffer from mental illness and a court specific to military veterans with psychological or substance abuse issues.
Just like Decker, Barton saw others in the justice system implementing that weren't really addressing the root cause of the problem. Because of his background as a child abuse prosecutor, Barton said, he is working to establish a Family Peace Center to help keep children who have had adverse childhood experiences (ACES) out of the criminal justice system later in life. He also has more projects "in the hopper," he says.
Barton said he's able to get these projects done because, in his words, "I'm proven and I'm trusted."
But Decker said he's forged community partnerships, too — he's part of the PTA at his daughter's school, he's been a union leader, he's on the board of the Five Oaks Museum, and his family has lived in Washington County for three generations.
Barton has called the DA race this year a "referendum on public safety."
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said this type of race is not unique to Washington County — or unique to Oregon — where a more progressive candidate challenges a more standard DA.
"It tells me that there's a political movement that looks at our criminal justice system and says, 'It's not working. What can we do to change it?'" Moore said. "And the progressive movement is coming up with a pretty coherent set of policies in candidates that it thinks would be good to sit in the district attorneys' offices and begin to change how our larger criminal justice system works."Even though Washington County has shifted considerably leftward in its politics over the past two decades, Moore said, that doesn't guarantee either candidate will win.
"I have no idea. That's why we have elections," he said. "But change is happening in Washington County.
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