Q&A: Washington County DA, challenger answer burning questions
Kevin Barton faces his second contested election as Washington County district attorney as he seeks voter support for a second four-year term on May 17.
Standing in Barton's way is challenger Brian Decker. He hopes to unseat Barton and become the top prosecutor for Oregon's second-most populous county.
We compiled a list of questions about the top issues facing Washington County's next DA and sent a short questionnaire to both candidates. Their responses are published below, in full and unabridged, with only light editing for style and grammar.
What is the most significant issue facing Washington County at this time? How would you go about fixing it?
Kevin Barton: Washington County is the safest large county in Oregon. Our crime rate is 30% lower than state average and 50% lower than Multnomah County. However, despite these positive numbers, I believe the most significant issue we face is keeping Washington County safe. Specifically, I see three significant challenges that we must address in order to be successful:
1. Limited public safety resources
2. Rising drug addiction
3. Increased crime from Portland
First, Washington County needs to prioritize funding public safety. This means ensuring that our public safety resources meet the increased needs of our growing community. For example, the Washington County Jail is the second-smallest jail per capita in Oregon. Built over 20 years ago when the county was two-thirds its current population, the jail is not large enough to meet community needs, which results in inmates released every week due to overcrowding. This year, the jail is on track to release over 2,000 inmates because there is not enough space.
Second, we need to address rising drug addiction. There is a well-known correlation between addiction and crime, especially property crime. Ballot Measure 110 (decriminalizing possession of street drugs) has exacerbated this issue as we have seen crimes like car theft, catalytic converter theft and car break-ins increase.
As has been widely reported, Measure 110 has not delivered the increased treatment it promised. I believe we need to do more to address addiction in order to halt this rise in property crime. As DA, I have been a strong supporter of specialty and treatment courts such as our Drug Court and Veterans Treatment Court. These programs address underlying addictions in order to prevent crime from occurring. I also am part of the steering committee for Washington County's upcoming Center for Addiction Triage and Treatment, which will increase addiction treatment options in our community.
Third, we must recognize that crime does not stop at the county line. We are seeing rising crime in Washington County committed by Portland criminals. In the last three years, the percentage of crime committed by Portland criminals in Washington County has increased by 81% for burglaries, 114% for robberies, 85% for car break-ins, and 139% for firearms offenses. If your car is stolen in Washington County, there's a good chance that it will be found in Portland. We must continue to send a strong message that criminals will be arrested and prosecuted in Washington County.
Brian Decker: Homelessness is becoming a humanitarian crisis in our region. It may be less visible in Washington County than in neighboring counties, but it's no less devastating: Beaverton School District has more homeless students than any other district in the state, and thousands of residents are housing insecure.
A district attorney cannot lower housing costs, but a DA's responses to even nonviolent crime can either worsen homelessness or help curb it. Favoring incarceration, as my opponent does, when supervision or treatment are valid options, puts people at risk of losing their homes. Even a short jail stay destabilizes someone living paycheck to paycheck: missing shifts can lead to losing a job, failing to pay rent and getting evicted. A conviction record can make it impossible to get a new job or apartment. Incarceration makes a person 10 times more likely than average to become homeless.
As DA, I will consider rehabilitation options for every appropriate case. Treatment and diversion programs are long-term solutions for lowering crime in addition to easing the homeless crisis. The missing piece is a DA committed to prevention.
Are you supportive of the Measure 110 model that Oregon is using for narcotics? Why or why not, and what would you urge the Legislature to do in changing it?
Barton: I think Measure 110 has been a disappointing failure. Titled the "Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act," and financed primarily by out-of-state interests, Measure 110 backers promised that it would provide increased drug treatment as it decriminalized drug possession. But it has not delivered on that promise.
As was recently reported by The Oregonian, words like "chaos" and "debacle" have been used to describe its rollout. According to the most recent statewide numbers, most people cited for drug possession under Measure 110 do not receive treatment and a significant percentage of them (almost half) simply ignore the citation and don't show up in court. Now in Oregon, there is a greater consequence for littering than there is for openly using heroin.
While the system in place prior to Measure 110 was imperfect, at least it required people to engage in court-supervised drug treatment. It is not a coincidence that we are seeing rising drug addiction, rising homelessness, and rising crime all occur simultaneously.
The Legislature should prioritize addressing this issue without delay. The first two things I think the Legislature should consider are:
1. Create a single person who is in charge and held accountable for making the workable parts of Measure 110 work and for proposing amendments to fix the unworkable parts; and
2. Develop an incentive so that people who are using addictive drugs like meth or heroin are compelled to participate in treatment rather than given a voluntary option.
Decker: I agree with the overwhelming majority of Washington County voters: the Drug War has failed. Overdose deaths are on the rise all across the country.
Three years ago, Oregon ranked second in the nation for substance abuse disorder and 50th in access to treatment. Decriminalizing the simple possession of small amounts of drugs, while continuing to prosecute drug trafficking, is the right thing to do.
My opponent calls Measure 110 a failure because so few people are taking the police route to treatment, but that's the point! That's his inability to break out of the old paradigm and see the real benefits of the new law. In the first six months, and with less than 10% of total funds distributed, more than 16,000 people have been able to access critical services. Plus we've seen a huge reduction in drug arrests and convictions. This is a big deal, because a criminal record for even a misdemeanor drug charge can saddle people with criminal records that create lifelong barriers to employment and housing.
For me, it boils down to this: getting arrested should not be a prerequisite for getting help. Coerced treatment is largely ineffective and undignified. In order to work, addiction recovery services must be evidence-based, voluntary and accessible. That's exactly what Measure 110 does. We need to roll out more treatment pronto, not go back to the bad old days.
What specific criminal justice reforms would you pursue in your term?
Barton: I support responsible reforms and have pursued multiple reforms during my first term as district attorney. These include programs such as: Veterans Treatment Court, Rapid Fitness to Proceed (mental health) program, Mental Health Diversion Pilot Program, Hate Crimes Multidisciplinary Team, Cold Case Unit, Domestic Violence Unit, Oregon Diversity Legal Job Fair and Family Peace Center of Washington County.
During my second term as district attorney, I wish to build on the success of many of these programs that we have set in motion.
One of my key priorities is the Family Peace Center of Washington County. We are just now beginning the work of creating this pioneering and first-of-its-kind facility in Oregon. Last summer, I spearheaded an effort to $6.65 million in funding from the legislature to purchase and remodel a building. Our mission is to address the impact of trauma (also known as "Adverse Childhood Experiences" or "ACEs") on children and adults. By doing this, we know that we will reduce the number of people who are dealing with mental health challenges, addiction, and criminal behavior. I believe the Family Peace Center effort is transformational criminal justice reform because it will create a generational result that increases the safety of our community.
Decker: I will focus on the prevention of crime and rehabilitating non-violent offenders away from criminal behavior — not just prosecuting after crimes have already been committed and hoping, despite evidence to the contrary, that the toughest sentences will solve problems. That means maximizing our use of rehabilitation alternative programs where appropriate — getting more people into them, and getting people into them earlier on in the court process.
I will enforce the highest ethical standards in my office to end racial discrimination and promote equal justice for all. I will make all the data on our office's decision transparent so that the community can see what outcomes it is leading to, and I will build a community oversight body to hold our office to account.
I will foster the development of a restorative justice program as an alternative to traditional criminal court where appropriate. This will provide better options for victims and survivors, who have been either coerced and bullied or ignored entirely by DA Kevin Barton's office. Providing more options will also promote safety by reducing recidivism at a fraction of the cost.
How can/will you use your office to address the severe shortage of public defenders in Washington County right now?
Barton: I support ensuring there are adequate resources for all aspects of the criminal justice system, including public defenders. The Oregon Public Defense Services (OPDS) is the state agency that is required by law to ensure the public defense system works. Put bluntly, OPDS is not doing its job.
The state should take immediate steps to address this failure including an analysis of current public defense resources and funding, an analysis of current OPDS management, and an analysis of the current public defense structure. I have heard some claim that Oregon needs to hire 1,300 more public defenders (bringing the total to over 1,800). While I do not believe this is an accurate number (it would result in about quadruple the number of public defenders as compared to prosecutors statewide), I do believe Oregon's public defense system has major structural, funding and management problems that need to be addressed without delay. Ensuring defendants have proper legal representation is a fundamental aspect of the American judicial system.
For my part as district attorney, I do not have a direct role to play in how the public defense system functions. Prosecutors are literally "on the other side" from defense attorneys and not involved in their management or funding. However, I am on a workgroup now with our local attorneys and judges to work toward local solutions that can help address the problem. Unlike my opponent, who has called to defund Washington County police and prosecutors, I also strongly and publicly support ensuring that all aspects of our criminal justice system (defense attorneys, prosecutors, courts, law enforcement, and probation officers) are adequately funded so they can address community needs.
Decker: As a former federal prosecutor and public defender, I've worked on both sides of the courtroom and know the importance of having a fully functioning system. Think of your family member or loved one who's been in trouble with the law. Would you want them to have good representation in court? I believe that's essential to a well-functioning legal system, and it's a constitutional right for all Americans.
Kevin Barton thinks it's nothing but an obstacle. He says the shortage amounts to public defenders "not showing up" and called the American Bar Association report on the need for more attorneys "fantastical." We need a collaborative and solutions-oriented DA, not one who disparages public defenders who have a critical constitutional duty.
When it comes to resolving cases in a way that promotes accountability and rehabilitation, the district attorney holds all the cards. We need a DA who will focus on problem-solving and prevention rather than maximizing the threat of needless incarceration. Victims, the accused and the community deserve a legal system that can move cases efficiently and well, so they can get the safety and justice they are seeking.
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