Our Opinion? What happened to disparity data?
In January, Multnomah County officials invited the Portland Tribune to the office of the county's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council for a sneak peek at what they said would be a valuable tool to address well-documented patterns of racial disparity.
A year earlier, county officials had scrambled to respond to a damning report, funded by the
MacArthur Foundation, that showed African-Americans are overrepresented in virtually every stage of the county's criminal justice system.
The research presented to the Tribune that day helped inform the "Unequal Justice" project, a collaboration between the Pamplin Media Group and InvestigateWest that expanded the scope of the MacArthur report to look at disparities statewide.
Part of our investigation focused on Multnomah County, where InvestigateWest's Lee van der Voo and Tribune reporter Nick Budnick examined the rate at which people were charged for 202 offenses. The findings were troubling. For example, compared to white residents, African-Americans were charged at a ratio of:
• 3:1 for failing to use vehicle lights
• 4:1 for littering
• 5:1 for possession of a controlled substance
• 6:1 for using a "disabled parking" space without a permit
• 9:1 for jaywalking
Our investigation also found that African-Americans paid higher fines and fees for those violations.
County officials were not thrilled to be under the spotlight once again, and stressed the changes they were making to address unequal treatment. Court officials, in particular, challenged our methodology and said they had better data, which painted a less-bleak picture.
At the time, Multnomah County officials noted that county analyst Amanda Lamb was putting that data into a user-friendly "dashboard" that soon would be available not only to journalists, researchers and policymakers, but the general public.
The data wasn't quite ready to be released, they said, but they'd let Lamb demonstrate it to Budnick, which she did on Jan. 25.
Eleven months later, that data still hasn't been released. Instead of using the dashboard to promote transparency in a criminal justice system that desperately needs it, county officials fired Lamb earlier this month. What's more, they won't say when the data — which comes from public records — will be released.
As detailed in this week's article by Budnick, officials say Lamb was fired because she wasn't authorized to demonstrate the dashboard at a national data analytics conference in October.
Lamb's real offense, however, seems to be that she left out some information that would have made the disparities seen in the county courts look less severe and that she was too candid with her comments about the internal battles over the release of the dashboard.
Lamb hasn't spoken publicly about her dismissal. It's possible her dashboard was flawed and that her comments were out of line.
But the fact remains that two years after the MacArthur study and more than six months after questioning our analysis of court data, Multnomah County officials have yet to give journalists, researchers and the public the tools they need to see what progress has been made in addressing the disparities that have long plagued the local criminal justice system.
Earlier this year, when confronted with the data in the Unequal Justice series showing that African-Americans and Latinos were disproportionately charged with numerous violations and crimes statewide, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said it was "a little embarrassing" that journalists had better data than her agency.
At this point, after more than a year of study, Multnomah County should be more than a little embarrassed that with all their resources, they have been unable to sort through the judges' concerns and assemble the data in a way that would allow the public to understand it and let employees discuss it without fear of losing their jobs.