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More than a decade ago, Multnomah County officials launched what was billed as a comprehensive effort to tackle troubling racial and ethnic disparities in who was arrested, jailed and sent to prison.

Today, memories of that earlier effort have faded, and the differences in rates of arrest and incarceration have become even more stark. African-Americans, though just 5 percent of the population, make up 27 percent of the people in county jails, according to a report released last month.

That difference in rates is even worse than the numbers in 1998, the numbers analyzed by the county for its last big push on jail and justice disparities. Back then, African-Americans were 7 percent of the population, but 24 percent of the people in jail.

Now officials are launching a similar effort to the one in 2000, citing a new statistical snapshot of jail beds and sentencing. And they say the outcome this time needs to be different.

Despite two decades of talking about it, “We have failed to make the change the community needs,” says Judy Shiprack, a Multnomah County commissioner and former prosecutor.

Shiprack and other officials are reacting to a study prepared with county cooperation and funded with $150,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The study tracked the racial and ethnic breakdown of people entering county jails, then followed them through the stages of pretrial release, sentencing, probation and parole.

The study uses a “relative rate index’ to track how the portion of other racial and ethnic groups differed from that of whites. According to the report, African-Americans are about four times more likely than whites to be arrested and have their cases referred to the district attorney for prosecution.

That fourfold difference in rates remains roughly constant throughout the county’s justice system except when it comes to being sentenced to prison and being returned to jail for a parole violations. At those two points, the difference in rates jumps from a fourfold disparity for African-Americans defendants to a sevenfold one.

Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill says he’s pleased that his office doesn’t add to the disparities at the earliest stage in the process his office oversees, when it decides which cases to prosecute. “I’m pleased that we do not add to the disproportionality of individuals that are charged. But at the same time, we don’t fix it either. It’s more or less flatlined at that point.”

As for the later jump in the number of African-Americans people sentenced to state prison — primarily the result of the way a case is charged — Underhill calls it alarming, but says it would be a danger to make “hasty” changes without a deeper understanding of what those changes could mean for crime victims.

“We have a number, but do we have a story behind the number? I’m not attempting to be defensive about the number. I’m alarmed by the number. I want to know about it.”

Scott Taylor heads the county Department of Community Justice, which employs the probation officers who decide whether a defendant under their supervision are returned to jail for probation violations, and for how long.

Like Underhill, Taylor called the increase in disparity in probation violations alarming, but called for more research. “Why is this?” he says. “What are the systems that are in place that may be biased and what are the drivers that are ongoing that we need to reconsider?”

Lane Borg, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defenders, is part of the group working with MacArthur. He says the biggest problem is not the charges that are putting people in prison at such a highly disproportionate rate, but the smaller charges that first get kids involved in the criminal justice system.

“It’s the chippy charges, it’s the small cases,” he said at a meeting of the City Club of Portland on Friday. “That is going to have stickiness on them that is literally going to haunt them forever.”

Portland Police Bureau Assistant Chief Kevin Modica, who also spoke at the City Club, says his agency is already making dramatic changes as a result of its settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice based on concerns over use of force and interactions with the mentally ill. He says the bureau is making improvements in officer training and eventually may explore an improved “risk assessment tool” to govern its policing.

Different rollout

One interesting contrast in how the new disparities report differs from its predecessor in 2000 is how public officials reacted.

The MacArthur-funded findings were completed in December 2015, but were not released publicly until February, when activists decided it was time to go public.

In 2000, public officials led by District Attorney Mike Schrunk did not wait for the report to be finalized, instead releasing a draft to reporters and announcing a series of meetings intended to lead to a broad array of changes. Among the recommendations released two years later: a call for annual reports to update the statistical snapshot underlying the recommendations.

In the end, the annual reports were not done. And some officials, like Underhill — a prosecutor since 1988 — say they don’t recall the effort.

Officials hope this time will lead to more sustained change, and Erika Preuitt, the head of adult services for the community justice department, is optimistic.

“I think this is different,” says Preuitt, who was involved in officials’ response to the 2000 report. “The difference in what is happening now is the whole system coming together and the assistance of MacArthur to drill into the data.”

Funding uncertain

Despite the first round of $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation, it’s unclear how much additional assistance there will be.

Based on the report prepared with MacArthur funding, the county has asked the foundation for an additional $4 million to carry out a plan calling for training, dozens of public meetings, new outreach workers, and a partnership with community groups to redesign county programs.

One thing the local officials’ plan does not include, however, is a cut in jail beds — a major goal of the foundation. So it’s unclear if Multnomah will get the full amount requested. The foundation wants some local jurisdictions to become the centerpiece of a national political push on how jails impact low-income people, as well as minorities and ethnic groups, leading to “a robust communications campaign aimed at elevating jail overuse into an urgent national issue.”

Underhill says receiving the full funding will help officials tackle the deeper work necessary to break the numbers down. Regardless of whether the funding comes through, “I actually think that leaders are very much interested in this,” he says.

The county will learn whether it qualifies for the full $4 million later this month.

In the meantime, lacking funding, officials have grappled with how to respond to the report.

Officials were bracing for the release of the report even before its release.

On Feb. 3, Shiprack distributed talking points formulated with the help of the county public affairs office to Portland Police Chief Larry O’Dea, Mayor Charlie Hales, Sheriff Dan Staton, Underhill, Multnomah County Presiding Judge Nan Waller and others. Among the anticipated questions, Shiprack wrote, “Why is our first step so much less bold than the study suggests it should perhaps be, given the size/scope of the problem?”

The answer: a long-term plan is necessary, and a “long process of healing.”

Even without further funding from MacArthur, the county will make changes, Shiprack vows.

“We knew that it would not be good,” she says of the report. “But it really is really bad. And now we need to do something about it.”

By Nick Budnick
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