We need leadership — not denials — from DAs

By Kathy Wai

When the ACLU of Oregon launched the They Report to You campaign to educate voters about district attorneys, Clackamas County DA John Foote could have embraced the new initiative. After all, a well-respected nonprofit was providing Foote’s constituents with a new tool to help DAs like him improve the criminal justice system.

But instead of seeing an opportunity to engage with voters and help reform our criminal justice system, Foote chose denial. The most powerful man in the Clackamas County criminal justice system wrote that it was “patently false” that people of color are treated worse in our system than white people are.

I was shocked by this. I work with communities of color in my day job. As an elected school board member of the North Clackamas School District, I can see, up close, how the school-to-prison pipeline can begin. My experiences and conversations have clearly shown that people of color are treated unfairly throughout our criminal justice system.

The data also shows that people of color face a harsher system. The Sentencing Project’s research shows that Oregon is among the top states for incarcerating Black men. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that in 2015, our system chose to convict Native Americans of felony drug possession charges five times more often than it did for white people. InvestigateWest and the Pamplin Media Group discovered that Latino Oregonians are forced to pay higher fines than white people for the same crimes.

It is well understood that the criminal justice system treats people of color worse. And so it is incredibly concerning to see that DA John Foote, the top law enforcement officer in our county, tries to pretend that it’s not happening. How can we count on him to address this issue if he can’t even admit that it exists?

But this is the kind of strategy that district attorneys like John Foote have long used to block common sense reforms: denial.

For example, in the legislature this year, district attorneys were the primary voices opposing basic of improvements to our criminal justice system. DAs tried to stop legislators from ending law enforcement profiling, reducing unreasonably harsh, simple drug possession penalties, slowing our over-reliance on incarceration and making our grand jury system more transparent. Fortunately, in a bi-partisan effort, lawmakers supported progress and criminal justice reform anyway.

How are elected district attorneys able to get away with trying to block popular, common-sense reforms? Because DAs often fly under the radar. Research shows that most voters don’t know who their DAs are. When DAs have to run for election, they’re often unopposed. So too many voters overlook these offices.

We can change this. In a healthy Democracy, nobody should be guaranteed re-election. If more Oregonians knew that DAs, for example, have the power to charge a police officer with misconduct or to not pursue the death penalty, we could demand that they adopt the policies and practices that we want. The decisions DAs make could reflect our values. The Report to You campaign is designed to make that happen.

I was angry to hear that the most powerful person in our county’s criminal justice system thinks that racial disparities aren’t a problem. But John Foote does not speak for all DAs. And I hope that many DAs welcome this opportunity to be true leaders for reform. Because we must work together to build a better, fairer criminal justice system.

Kathy Wai is a Clackamas Dems PCP and an elected member of the North Clackamas School Board. This article first appeared as an Op/Ed in the Lake Oswego Review and is reprinted here by permission of the author.