LOSING FAITH IN JUSTICE SYSTEM?
Fewer than half of all Oregonians have faith in the American justice system, according to a new survey conducted by DHM Research.
The poll found that only 49 percent of state residents believe the system is working to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases. Forty-one percent say it is not working and 11 percent don't know.
Even fewer — 43 percent — believe the system is working to settle disputes between private parties, such as individuals and businesses. Forty percent say it is not working and 17 percent don't know.
The lack of faith is reflected in beliefs about the role of juries in the system, says John Horvick, vice president and political director of DHM Research.
The survey found that 70 percent of Oregonians have confidence in juries. But, although juries are always instructed by judges to follow the letter of the law, only 38 percent said it is the responsibility of jury members to do so, even when they believe it will result in an unjust outcome. Most — 55 percent — said it is the responsibility of jury members to achieve the most just outcome.
"Oregonians have ambivalent feelings about the proper role of juries. A big chunk really don't know what it is," Horvick says.
In fact, a full 59 percent said it is acceptable for juries to return a "not guilty" verdict despite the belief that the defendant is technically guilty of the violation — a concept known as
jury nullification. Only 24 percent said it was not acceptable and 17 percent didn't know.
The online survey of 602 Oregonians was conducted between Jan. 29 and Feb. 5. Questions about the justice system were included to help Horvick prepare an upcoming presentation to the Oregon Bar Association, the professional organization that licenses lawyers in the state.
The results show a significant drop in faith in the justice system since a year ago, when the same questions were asked in a previous survey. At that time, 61 percent said the criminal system was working and 58 percent said the civil system was working.
"That's a big drop, and we don't know why because we didn't ask," Horvick says.
Despite the lack of specific questions in the survey, several things happened over the past year that potentially could have undermined the faith of Oregonians in government, in general, and the justice system, in particular. Repercussions from the unexpected election of Donald Trump as president are still being felt across the state, especially in the Portland area, where opposition to his administration's immigration and marijuana policies are the strongest. The same is true of the surprise acquittals of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers last year.
And the ACLU of Oregon has been conducting a public information campaign to educate residents about what the ACLU says is the unchecked powers of county district attorneys. Overall confidence in district attorneys dropped 15 points since last year's survey, although it is still at 55 percent, Horvick says.
Other components of the justice system retain a high level of overall confidence. They include the U.S. Supreme Court (69 percent); the Oregon Supreme Court (60 percent); the FBI (64 percent); county judges (62 percent); county sheriffs (70 percent); defense attorneys (53 percent) and police departments (82 percent).
The survey also included a number of questions not directly related to the justice system. For example, it found that only 34 percent of Oregonians do not believe climate change is caused by man-made carbon emissions. Twenty-two percent believe the U.S. government is hiding evidence that aliens have visited Earth. And 14 percent believe vaccines increase the risk of children developing autism.
Horvick notes that the vast majority of Oregonians holding those beliefs support jury nullification.
"Maybe it says something about people's trust in institutions," Horvick says.
And despite the fallout over Trump's election, most Oregonians are not willing to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote. Although Hillary Clinton received more popular votes than Trump nationally and in Oregon, the survey found 56 percent are against the state joining the National Popular Vote interstate compact. Only 35 percent support joing the compact and 10 percent don't know.
The 2018 Oregon Legislature is considering placing a measure on the ballot asking voters if they want to join the compact. Horvick says that looks like "a big ask" at this time.