A Peek Behind The Curtain: Shining Some Light on District Attorney Policies in Oregon
PORTLAND, Ore. -- A new report released by the ACLU of Oregon found that at least 40 percent of Oregon’s District Attorneys do not have internal written policies to guide their core work within the criminal justice system.
“District Attorneys are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system and Oregon law provides DAs with enormous discretion to make decisions about who and how people are prosecuted,” said david rogers, executive director the ACLU of Oregon. “The lack of written policies among Oregon’s DA offices is deeply troubling, particularly when you consider the critical role DAs play in the justice system.”
The report: A Peek Behind the Curtain: Shining Some Light on District Attorney Policies in Oregon is the result of more than two years of research by the ACLU of Oregon. Research began in November 2016, when the ACLU of Oregon submitted public records requests to all 36 of Oregon’s district attorney offices in order to better understand what policies shaped their work.
As a result of these findings, the ACLU of Oregon is supporting HB 3224 in the 2019 Legislative Session. HB 3224 will create a basic standard for transparency and accountability for Oregon’s DA offices, requiring every district attorney to create policies for the core functions of their office and make them available to the public.
“This report is a call to action to Oregon’s legislature,” said rogers. “Oregonians deserve greater transparency and accountability in our criminal justice system. Mandating basic and transparent policies for every DA office is an essential step toward modernizing our justice system. Our state’s criminal justice system should reflect current best practices to improve outcomes for Oregonians. This shouldn’t be seen as a luxury.”
Other key findings from the report:
- Only 13 DA offices demonstrated that they have a meaningful set of written policies for the core functions of their office, providing at least some guidance about how they and their staff are handling their core duties as prosecutors in Oregon.
- A third of DA offices refused to respond to at least one of the ACLU of Oregon’s requests for basic information and did so in direct violation of the state’s public records law.
- While 40 percent of the district attorney offices acknowledged they have no internal written policies, this number may be higher because several offices didn’t respond at all.
- Several district attorneys shared disbelief that office policies are actually needed, making the argument that the law provides a sufficient guide to their work.
- In one case, the ACLU learned that the Tillamook County District Attorney is intentionally working around a 2017 law that defelonized small-scale possession of drugs (House Bill 2355).
The ACLU of Oregon recommends that every district attorney office in Oregon have a basic set of policies that guide its core functions. These policies serve many critical purposes including:
- To ensure there is continuity to how staff in DA offices prosecute people.
- To set standards for behavior and expectations on critical issues where there is no guiding law.
- To provide clarity of expectations and critical information for other justice system stakeholders, victims, defendants, and the public at large.
- To create mechanisms of accountability for themselves and their staff to adhere to.
- To clarify how a particular office will use its discretion based on the DA’s values, priorities, and understanding of the most effective public safety strategies.
“Policies that guide the work in district attorney’s offices matter,” said rogers. “The choices that individual DAs make about how their offices are run and how their prosecutors operate profoundly impact the lives of Oregonians.”
Research Records: The ACLU of Oregon has made available every document from the research available to the public here.