Multnomah County's racial disparities dashboard on hold
A year and a half after Multnomah County officials vowed to press on toward publishing a detailed interactive snapshot of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the long-hyped project languishes in political limbo.
The project and doubts over its future were highlighted by the December 2017 firing of Amanda Lamb, a Multnomah County data analyst who irked local elected officials for her remarks about the dashboard at a Las Vegas convention that were promptly posted online.
The failure to launch the disparity dashboard is significant because it was viewed as a tool to monitor the county's progress in addressing inequities in how the justice system treats people of different backgrounds. It's also significant because the failure to finish her project could arguably bolster Lamb's credibility in court. She filed a $1.8 million federal whistleblower suit last month saying her firing constituted retaliation for airing what local officials didn't want public.
Among her remarks, Lamb blamed elected officials' sensitivities for the fact that the dashboard hadn't been released yet. "It has been a really big challenge to try to build support, and it's not because people are trying to hide anything," she said, adding that it made policymakers nervous. "This is just really sensitive to the people that are going to be held accountable."
Lamb's project had been completed in draft form, and had been used internally for much of 2017. But it still has not been made available to the public.
Multnomah County officials say that's because Circuit Court judges in the county, who are employees of the state, have for two years refused to sign an inter-governmental agreement that would allow the project to use court sentencing data and go live.
"We are awaiting the signature of the courts to our IGA agreement, data-sharing agreement, and yes, it has been two years," said the county's communications director, Julie Sullivan-Springhetti.
Officials say they are working on a new version of the dashboard that would be published without sentencing data, even though sentences are a crucial element of the disparities Lamb had found, and that sentencing data is available in public records. The far more restricted version does not yet have a release date yet, but "that's going to happen without court data," said spokeswoman Jessica Morkert-Shibley.
Barbara Marcille, the administrator for the county branch of the state Circuit Court system, defended the decision first made by then-Presiding Judge Nan Waller not to cooperate with the county's dashboard. She said the county's plans were flawed. Among other things, Lamb had not included information about offenders' criminal history, which could help explain some of the disparities the dashboard found, she said.
Marcille said the Multnomah court system had begun its own version of a disparities dashboard, only to decide not to go forward without being able to include offenders' criminal histories, a key component in how sentencing decisions are made.
"There isn't an active project re-creating that dashboard, per se, but there's still work trying to overcome those obstacles and get to a point where we can do better analysis of the data," she said.
Lamb's project was considered revolutionary in that it went beyond the stale data of reports on the subject, and presented disparities in visual form, allowing comparisons to be broken down by charge, by race and other factors. She could tell you, as she told the audience in Las Vegas, that African-American defendants in Multnomah County were twice as likely as white defendants to be charged for a vehicle crime or for interfering with public transit.
Hurt feelings played role
Before filing her suit, Lamb complained to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, sparking an investigation that shed light on her claims and the county's response.
In her interview with the investigator, Lamb said she was told that she was fired because she made certain officials "look bad." She said that she resisted efforts to make her add offenders' criminal histories and economic backgrounds, which she felt were efforts to water down her findings.
"Even when defendants have the same criminal history, people of color are still getting harsher sentences," she said. "I tell policy-makers this, and it makes me unpopular."
But the county defended Chair Deborah Kafoury's decision to fire Lamb as appropriate, saying Lamb knew full well that the products of her analysis, though based on public records, were not supposed to be public yet.
"Ms. Lamb was employed in an at-will position by Multnomah County, wherein she served at the pleasure of the County Chair. When the County Chair took a dim view of Ms. Lamb's unauthorized disclosure of confidential information (information that Ms. Lamb explicitly noted in her presentation was not "public") as a representative of the County in a public setting, the chair had Charter authority to terminate Ms. Lamb's employment."
After firing Lamb, Kafoury vowed to press on in completing the analyst's project. At the time, she noted that the county is pursuing several initiatives to address racial disparities, and said, "we need this dashboard to measure whether what we are doing is making a difference. ... I can imagine that some people are nervous about data that might show them in a critical light. But I believe that the public has a right to know and I believe that we as public officials are tasked with making our community a better place for everyone and that involves focusing on things that don't make people comfortable."
Asked on Monday for her thoughts on the continued delay, Kafoury said in an email, "We still can't release a dashboard without our partners' data. So we've been actively working on other ways to collect and publish this information. County staff are building a new visualization, as well as a (detailed) analysis of disparities similar to the analysis in news reports published in 2016. We haven't let this frustrating situation stop us either from analyzing disparities in the public safety system or launching policies and programs to address them."
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