Thursday, March 30, 2017

Public safety, not percentages


Guest column: Public safety, not percentages 

We evaluate each case person by person

By Joshua Marquis
Special to The Daily Astorian
Published on March 30, 2017 12:01AM

In journalism, research and trial law, you learn that the questions asked are as important, sometimes more so, than the answers. Recent articles in The Daily Astorian have discussed a state program called “justice reinvestment” without asking some pertinent questions.

One might assume from some of the glossy graphs from Salem that Clatsop County is sending a stunningly high percentage of people to prison.

A deeper dive shows otherwise. On a statewide average, 24% of felons were sent to prison last year following conviction. In Clatsop County, that rate was 21%. Nineteen Oregon counties send felons to prison following conviction at a higher rate than does Clatsop County.

Where Clatsop County’s prosecutors and judges are tougher is in a smaller set of cases known as downward departures. In these cases my office will recommend giving the offender a second (and often third, fourth or fifth) chance by agreeing to probation — if the offender will agree to serve a set number of months in prison (generally less than 24) should a judge determine their probation is not properly fulfilled.

Clatsop County sends 14% of its felons to prison in this manner, a rate still lower than four other counties, including the most populous, Multnomah.

Judges are the only ones who can send people to prison and are only mandated to send felons to prison for first-degree Measure 11 crimes such as murder, manslaughter, sexual abuse in the first degree, or rape in the first degree. In 2008, prosecutors and Portland-area legislators formed an unusual alliance to pass a more sensible measure to beat out Measure 61, which would have also mandated prison terms for many first-time burglars and car thieves. Measure 57 was supported by almost all of the state’s elected district attorney’s, including myself.

The Legislature’s response? They suspended Measure 57 at their next regular session, claiming it would cost too many prison beds. Then in 2013, they hammered out the justice reinvestment plan, again rolling back portions of the measure. (Several legislators, like our own state Sen. Betsy Johnson, did not support crossing the voters.) In theory, money that would not be spent on state prison beds for second-time home burglars or four-time identity thieves, would be diverted to the counties for local programs.

But justice reinvestment creates a negative bounty, essentially paying parts of the justice system to not send repeat property offenders and drug dealers to prison.

Clatsop County felons often chalk up four or five violations before a judge says “enough” and revokes their probation. Many felons struggle with addiction issues. Efforts are made through Drug Court and Mental Health Court, in which my office participates, to assist these people, allowing them multiple fails.

Importantly, Salem is famous for pushing unfunded mandates on local governments. The justice reinvestment dollars are likely to expire or simply dry up in a couple of years.

Only a judge can decide to send a felon to prison. We are fortunate that our three Circuit Court judges make good decisions.

So, when looking at the data proffered by Salem, consider these questions:

• How robust are the local Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police, and local agencies? In Clatsop County, they all do excellent work. But the more felons they catch, the more will be prosecuted. And, by the way, the fewer honest citizens will become victims of crime.

• Is there a local jail with available beds that could take some felons who might otherwise be sent to the state prison? Not in Clatsop County.

• Does the county have a significant tourist trade, or what we legally call “transient population?” The Daily Astorian reported recently that 42% of driving under the influence of intoxicants defendants did not live in Clatsop County.

My office carefully evaluates each case — not based on what the data will show at the end of the year, and hoping to “come up with good numbers.” We evaluate each case person by person, considering both the defendant and the victims, and the resources available, and make decisions based on public safety.

read the OpEd on the Daily Astorian's website

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Some never make it

Special to The Daily Astorian
Published on February 21, 2017 12:01AM

We have been too eager to declare victory in a war on drugs that never really started.

A recent editorial in The Daily Astorian correctly pointed to the dismal state of Oregon’s response to deaths directly caused by illegal drugs.

Another article chronicled the sad journey of Dave and Kerry Strickland, who lost their son, Jordan, to heroin and have had the courage to speak about a battle that touches so many families.

Not coincidentally, another article documented the rigors of getting a new police officer on the road at the Astoria Police Department.

While there has been some progress, together the three articles outline the imperative need for local governments to even more effectively and aggressively address drug abuse and illegal drugs.

Over-prescription of some drugs has been dramatically reduced. Pseudoephedrine was a common off-the-shelf cold medicine that was also crucial to the manufacture of methamphetamine — perhaps the worst of all the drugs. Its catastrophic health consequences include near-immediate addiction and psychotic behavior. Meth cooks bought larges batches of the drug from local stores, until Oregon passed legislation making a doctor’s prescription necessary for purchase. The “Beavis and Butthead labs,” as law enforcement called them, declined to almost zero.

We assumed that meant meth was gone. But that wasn’t so. Meth now comes into the United States in 55-gallon drums from international cartels.

The opiate that is killing people now is heroin. Heroin used to cost about $20 a dose and was far less potent. Today it is sometimes laced with illegally-imported quantities of the super-potent fentanyl, another opiate which has, when medically administered, brought tremendous relief to many (including my own mother) who suffer from severe chronic pain. “Recreational use” is the most ironic of terms for fentanyl-laced heroin, which now sells from $3 to $5 a dose and could be potent enough to kill the first time.

And so, another geopolitical aspect to our drug problems.

Many people addicted to drugs don’t end up in the court system. Some people never make it past the emergency room. Clatsop County is exceedingly fortunate to have Dr. Joann Giuliani to serve as our county’s medical examiner, not only being on call literally 24/7, but also working with police and the community when tragedies like opiate overdoses take someone’s life. Often, she answers the difficult questions families often have about how their child died.

A solid drug policy would address and provide: low-cost and long-term mental health and drug treatment; a law enforcement team dedicated to drug enforcement; and a practical, viable drug court backed up by the potential of real sanctions and real rewards. All three elements need reinforcement.
Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare has made real progress. Still, mental health treatment is scarce, and Clatsop County has no detox or secure mental health beds. In-patient drug treatment is operated entirely by private providers and remains out of reach for most without better-than-average insurance.

The path to sobriety is not easy, which is why we do not seek revocation of the second chances we extend on most drug possession cases the first few times they admit relapsing. But the threat of even a few days in jail may prompt someone to stay sober, to attend treatment, and to make it to the next stage in recovery. The people who complete drug court graduate with their case entirely dismissed.

After having founded Clatsop County’s Drug Court, Judge Philip Nelson has retired, turning drug court over to our newest judge, Dawn McIntosh. Because of sentencing guidelines, which judges are required to follow, it is literally impossible for someone to face prison for drug possession, no matter how bad their record or how many prior similar convictions they have racked up.

Not that most drug addicts belong in prison. Oregon has one of the lowest rates of imprisoning drug felons, at less than 10% of the state prison population. There is even a badly-conceived effort in this legislative session to reduce all possession cases from felonies to misdemeanors, further minimizing the actual harm done to users, their family, and the community. If the possibility of “earning away” a possible felony conviction, even without the threat of prison, is further eroded, then we can expect drug court applicants to dry to next to zero, as they have in California and other states that took this ill-advised step.

With heroin and meth being bigger business than ever, there is no reason, and no sense, in not addressing both the supply and demand sides of the drug problem.

The Clatsop County Drug Team allows police to focus on higher-level dealers, cutting off the supply much more effectively. It would have vanished long ago but for the determination of Sheriff Tom Bergin, who once ran the team as a detective. In its best years there were detectives from Astoria, Seaside, the Sheriff’s Office, and even the Oregon State Police. Draconian budget cuts have worn down the State Police for years and took away OSP’s detective. The years that Astoria Police participated were among the most productive. The City of Astoria should dedicate an officer to the drug team, in addition to its current needs.

We owe it to Dave, Kerry and Jordan Strickland, and the many others who have suffered under what The Daily Astorian called “this blight,” to do these basic steps to make Clatsop County a better place.

Here is the OpEd on the Daily Astorian's website.