FROM THE EDITOR: What about those 'friendly judges'?
Two readers wrote us thoughtful e-mails after reading the May BEE; and although we have discussed the issue both bring up before in these pages, it is certainly worth revisiting in a response to both. Instead of placing these comments in our Letters to the Editor, where the conversation would necessarily have to be abbreviated, we are using our monthly editorial space to fully discuss it.First, here are the two letters we received:
I am not a journalist so do not profess to know the proper use of all terms, but in reading the story "Stolen Sellwood vehicles lead to Westmoreland disturbance – and arrests", I was surprised to read -- not once, but three times (in the body of the story; twice, and once in the caption near the photo – a reference to a "friendly judge".
Indeed, I read the story because I wanted to know how these judges demonstrated their "friendliness." Was the [court] hearing virtual, and they waved and smiled at everyone? (That could be friendly, but what does that have to do with release?) Or did they talk nice and friendly to the defendants, thus demonstrating their friendliness? (Nope, the article didn't even quote the judges, so no words of friendliness conveyed.)
No, it apparently had to do with the legal acts they took, specifically the act of releasing defendants that both judges magically became friendly. So, if they had refused to release these individuals, would the writer have referred to them as "mean judges" (or at least "unfriendly")?
At best this is a failure of imagination to describe what I assume is the writer's conclusion that because two judges made a ruling that was to benefit the defendant the judges was friendly to the defendants, improper and clearly if they had not been they would have held the individuals pending trial or with additional terms. Of course at worst this implies that these were defendant-friendly judges, putting aside public safety, maybe even the rules of the court to release dangerous felons. Really?
Did the reporter look for an explanation and provide in the story as to the reasons for release? Did they contact the court to understand the reason? Did they ask defense counsel or the DA? What is the context here. Were the judges complying with regular practices in Multnomah County?
Instead, what I took from this story was that two judges did something contrary to public safety and best practices, releasing these individuals and as such they were friendly (to the defendant) and not to the community. Judges aren't friendly, seriously that's the term you want to use to describe such an important issue?
I'm reading a newspaper that I assume purports to be fact-based and neutral, so can we skip with describing the good or bad nature of the judges and, if needed, give more understanding about why the individuals were released, what other options were available so I could better understand the choices our judiciary has and why the judges might have made the decision here. I don't understand friendly but I do understand facts.
Andrea MeyerEditor, In the May issue there was a story about stolen vehicles and a disturbance in Westmoreland. In the text of the article it said that both suspects were ordered released by a judge. This has been a common theme in articles across multiple issues. Has THE BEE looked into if this is a single judge, only specific judges, or is common throughout the judiciary? And is there a way to tell how many of the released suspects show up for their court dates? This would provide helpful context for your readers as they navigate the various articles in your publication.
And here is our response:Actually, we have addressed this before, including in an editorial. You both have made some assumptions that we (and apparently most other media) make, and which are not correct. We, and other media, have assumed that somebody who is booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC) on felony charges, on warrants from other jurisdictions, or due to repeated violations, will stay there until their trial, unless they are granted – and make – bail. We discovered some time ago that this is often not the case, and so if we report people booked in, we now also try to report what happens after that. To an astonishing degree, judges here seem to be releasing those booked on serious felony charges, or on warrants, as if they had been booked on minor misdemeanors – often "on own recognizance", or occasionally with no restrictions at all, despite the charges. We think it is important for the community to know about that, since many of these people repeat their illegal behavior while released, and the community needs to be aware that these people are out and can still pose an immediate danger to them. No other local media offers that information, and all other local media may even be unaware that those charged with crimes which, if proven in court, make them a danger to the community or a risk for engaging in similar crimes, may be back on the streets immediately after arraignment. We believe that if we and other media report their arrest and their charges, we should also report what happened at the arraignment as well, in fairness to the community.Andrea asked, "Did the reporter look for an explanation and provide [it] in the story as to the reasons for release? Did they contact the court to understand the reason? Did they ask defense counsel or the DA? What is the context here. Were the judges complying with regular practices in Multnomah County?"
That really is the question, isn't it – and also the problem. Neither we nor any other media in Portland are able to tell you that! We responded to our initial discovery of these practices by trying to find out which judges were giving such generous release to those booked for serious crimes – even when the charges include shootings, assaults, and the like – and why they were being released. We learned that the courts will not reveal to the media which judges have done this, or why – and the only way to find out, is to assign a reporter to each arraignment in each county courtroom all day, every day. That's something that not even the largest media organizations in town – let alone THE BEE – have the wherewithal to do.This also makes it impossible for us to inform voters about what these judges, which they periodically are asked to re-elect, have been doing! Voters simply are told on the ballot, and in the voter handbook, whether they are an incumbent or not – and, too, they are often unopposed for the seat they are running for. Thiere'a a lack of public transparency about what the judges we elect are doing, as opposed to what the Portland City Counselors are doing and what our state legislators are doing – all of those other folks do what they do in the glare of the public spotlight! – and that is is what troubles THE BEE.So, the "friendliness" we referred to in these stories is the unexplained judicial generosity given to the accused standing before them – seemingly more consideration than they give to the more abstract members of the community they are accused of victimizing in some way. Our pointed use of "generosity", we hope, may eventually prod some local judge into piercing this veil of anonymity, and explaining to us these actions – many of which, of course, might be defensible in some way by the law, or by local circumstances. If we ever do get such a response, we will publish it. And, we hope any judge responding to this invitation will also allow us to print their name, and in what courtroom they wield the judicial gavel; but if we can verify that the response does actually come from a currently-empaneled Multnomah County judge, we will, if asked, withhold their name in order to print their answer.
Ideally, we would like to be able to conduct an in-depth interview with such a judge, in which we can exchange thoughts and obtain responses to community concerns. We are willing to print the entire text of such an interview.
In the meantime, we expect to continue alerting the community that arrests in Multnomah County for major felony crimes do NOT necessarily mean that those suspects are going to stay in custody until trial, or even remain in custody for more than a day or two. Here in Multnomah County, this sort of generous release policy seems to be more the exception rather than the rule, regardless of the seriousness of the crime.
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