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This month the editor observes that although most judges are on our ballot, we usually have no way to evaluate them

In May, we had another election on which there were a number of judges on the ballot – and, more often than not, unopposed. Even when opposed, there was little offered to make the distinction between the candidates. We ourselves been voting on judges since we first cast a ballot, but in almost every case, we had no idea how they were actually doing on the bench. We supposed that if a judge was performing differently than might be supposed, we'd hear about it in the press. But now, we discover, the press usually doesn't know much about how they're doing, either. When a judicial action is performed in Multnomah County, it turns out, the only way the news media would know for sure which judge performed it would be to be sitting in the courtroom when it happened – and few if any news organizations have the budget to place reporters in every courtroom every day! So, it does appear that there is a lack of transparency.

This problem has arisen as a result of THE BEE's routinely tracking crimes and criminals affecting the specific area we serve – Inner Southeast Portland. And, although Southeast is far from being the crime hotspot of Multnomah County, we do have a variety of crimes happening here, some of them quite troubling, all the way up to homicide.

Our source for most of the information on crimes committed, investigated, and arrests made, is news releases from the Portland Police Bureau, as is true for all other media here. When an arrest is made for a notable crime in our area, we report it, often with a mug shot and a list of the charges. We also include the booking information into MCDC – the Multnomah County Detention Center. But for most media, that's where the news item stops. Not too long ago, THE BEE started taking it one step further, as a result of our discovery that accused criminals – often charged with major crimes, and who arguably could be a danger to the community if released – were somehow getting out of jail and back onto the streets, where sometimes they were rearrested for new crimes similar to the ones they were originally jailed for. Of course, if bail was granted at their arraignment, they could have paid it, and gotten out that way. So we looked further. Specifically, we followed the booking process into jail by obtaining the accused's subsequent arraignment information. And what he found there surprised us enough that we now include this additional information in every such story we write.

It usually wasn't paying bail that gave them a pass back to the streets. In fact, after bail is set by a judge, Multnomah County judges sometimes seem to ignore the bail requirement. What has often been happening is that the accused are being released back into the community by our judges. Sometimes, "on own recognizance" – suggesting that the accused criminal, despite evidence of troubling deeds, can somehow be believed to be trustworthy. In more cases than not, these people are still expected to show up at their trial when released from jail that way – although sometimes they don't, and then a warrant is issued.

And, as a point of interest, accused criminals arrested on warrants are sometimes among those who are once again released "on own recognizance" until their next trial. The bottom line is that when you see on TV or read in a newspaper that an accused criminal has been apprehended and booked into MCDC, they may not stay in there even one day before they are back on the street again. If there is an intended element of community protection in putting an alleged dangerous offender in jail until their trial, that element is all too often not realized. And, if there is any deterrent value in having swift justice follow a crime, that lesson seems to be becoming vague also. THE BEE suggests that all media in the Portland area follow the booking process through arraignment, and include the outcome of the arraignment, to call more attention to what our elected judges are doing with the discretion they are granted. Certainly, a judge may well be able to offer a rationale for putting somebody who shot somebody with an illegal gun back on the street – for example – but we never get to hear that rationale, or judge the judge on it, ourselves. However, more than that, THE BEE suggests that the local media reports on each arraignment start to include the name of the judge making the disposition at the arraignment! Because, although the arraignment records are readily available public documents, they DO NOT identify the judge making the adjudication in the case.

To be clear, this editorial is NOT about such releases, and whether they are justified or not – there is usually not enough information made available to know that. This editorial is actually about the lack of transparency about what judges do. If they are to be elected by the public, surely there should be some way for the public to know how they are performing their job. It seems to us that if the judges were to be publicly identified with their actions at arraignments, voters would have a better idea what kind of justice they are obtaining from the judges they elect.

Would you like to see a little more judicial accountability?


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