My View: DAs must be held accountable to voters
District attorneys have collectively been the largest roadblock to modernizing and reforming our justice system. This is one of the reasons the ACLU of Oregon just launched a major, multiyear campaign for district attorney reform, called They Report to You. Specifically, we're educating the public about who district attorneys are, why they matter, and how the public can make sure they're accountable to voters.
Many Oregonians don't realize how powerful district attorneys are. They're the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. Among their many powers, district attorneys decide who gets charged with a crime or who goes free. They decide when youth are charged as adults and who gets treatment or who goes to jail. It's DAs who decide whether to charge a police officer for misconduct and when to pursue the death penalty.
At the same time, DAs often fly below the radar of the public. In the past decade, eight out of every 10 district attorney races was uncontested in Oregon. When voters don't have a real choice, many people choose not to vote or pay attention, and district attorneys are largely able to operate without much or any public scrutiny.
DAs enjoy tremendous power, high levels of job security, and low levels of accountability. This is a very bad recipe for justice. As a result, public education is one of the core goals of the They Report to You Campaign. And the name of the campaign underscores that in a democracy, elected leaders should be more accountable to voters.
One issue we are highlighting is how Oregon's DAs have worked to lock in the outdated policies of the 1990s.
For example, several district attorneys strongly opposed the recent bipartisan push in the Legislature to make possession of very small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Seventy-three percent of Oregonians supported that change, with majority support across party affiliation and across urban and rural communities.
People want policies that emphasize prevention, treatment and recovery. Why? Because 64 percent of Oregonians from across the state personally know someone who has or is struggling with addiction. So while some DAs were talking tough and advocating for dropping the hammer on people caught with small amounts of drugs, most Oregonians realize we are talking about our brothers, sisters, children, friends and colleagues.
While U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to ramp up the war on drugs again, thankfully, Oregon is heading in the opposite direction, despite attempts from many DAs to stop progress.
We need research-driven policies, not tough talk. And national research shows harsh drug penalties do not result in reduced drug use, fewer arrests, or fewer overdose deaths. Not only do outdated, so-called "tough on crime" tactics not help; they actively cause harm.
Felony convictions for simple drug possession make it harder for people to access employment, housing and educational opportunities, which prevents people from putting their lives back on track. We can achieve accountability while also giving people a chance to rebuild their lives.
Although many DAs have been a roadblock to reform in Oregon, they also have the power to make positive change. Some DAs already have taken real leadership on key issues.
For example, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel supported grand jury transparency reform and Multnomah County DA Rod Underhill is developing a pre-booking diversion program that recognizes that the best intervention can be helping people access services and repair their lives, rather than a singular focus on prosecution.
Oregon needs more forward-thinking district attorneys, rather than fiercely defending outdated approaches. That's where our new campaign, They Report to You, comes in.
It's a simple idea: Make it easier for Oregonians to find out who their DA is, what they stand for, and increase voter engagement with these important elected positions. With more public engagement, we'll ensure Oregon can create a fair and effective justice system.