DA: Expecting Measure 11 reform, defense lawyers delay cases
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt believes local defense attorneys are slow-walking their cases in anticipation of cutting better deals for clients once state legislators gavel up criminal justice reform later this year.
Schmidt, a reform-minded lawman, won election in 2020 while championing changes to the voter-approved 1994 Oregon law known as Measure 11, which requires mandatory minimum sentences and no time off for good behavior in most violent offenses.
"I have been open about my feelings that Ballot Measure 11 contributes to the rapid growth of our prison population and has led to the disproportionate incarceration of diverse communities without making us demonstrably safer," Schmidt wrote to his prosecutors in a Jan. 24 memo. "My view on this matter remains unchanged."
As Pamplin Media Group previously reported, one legislative proposal filed on behalf of Gov. Kate Brown would swap the mandatory minimums for punishment guidelines that judges could strengthen or weaken, depending on the circumstances.
In the one-page memo, Schmidt says unspecified defense lawyers have recently rejected "pre-trial offers" — commonly called plea deals — because they think it "strategically advantageous to 'run out the clock' in hope of a change in policy around our approach to BM11."
"I do not support these efforts. Our justice system is already strained by COVID," Schmidt said, adding that the reform likely won't happen until "well into 2021."
The DA said he plans to speak with the defense bar about the matter as well. Reached for comment, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association declined to confirm or deny the specifics of the allegations.
"Measure 11 destabilizes our communities and disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous and people of color," said the spokeswoman, Mae Lee Browning. "We need Measure 11 reform in Oregon."
Yet it seems not everyone in the metro area has faced the same woes.
Clackamas District Attorney John Wentworth, who supports Measure 11 in its current form, says the wheels of justice aren't gummed up there.
"The defense bar in Clackamas County hasn't shared they are taking this approach, and we haven't seen it playing out as an issue," Wentworth said in a message to Pamplin Media.
A spokesman for Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said: "Our office is aware of only one instance when a defense attorney mentioned possible Ballot Measure 11 reform. District Attorney Barton sees no need to issue a similar memo here in Washington County."
Keith B. Rogers, executive director of the public defense agency Multnomah Defenders Inc., said their clients alone have the final say on what terms to accept — or not.
"I will say this: A defense attorney does not have the power to reject a plea offer and never does so," said Rogers. "Potential changes in the law might be one variable, of many, that a client might consider in reaching that decision."
Pamplin Media obtained Schmidt's memo via a public records request. It was earlier reported on social media by Oregonian reporter Noelle Crombie.
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