More than a thousand quality-of-life crimes are prosecuted in Multnomah County each year.
These crimes are typically non-violent, low-level offenses believed to lower the quality of life for people who live in or frequent the area where they are committed.
They include infringements such as trespassing, disorderly conduct and offensive littering – the charge someone would face for urinating in public – and can result in arrest, being booked into jail, criminal prosecution and in some cases, lengthy jail sentences.
Police departments across the nation began to increase arrests for these types of crimes in the 1980s and 1990s after criminologists George Kelling and James Wilson suggested a new approach to policing they claimed effectively lowers crime rates. They called it “broken-windows theory” in an article they penned for The Atlantic Monthly in 1982.
The theory is that if police crack down on minor offenses such as vandalism and loitering, it will prevent more serious crimes from creeping in.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani credited broken windows policy for the significant drop in crime his city saw in the years following its implementation. His city long served as the shining example of how well broken-windows police tactics work.
A 2013 study published in Justice Quarterly found there was no link between broken windows policing and the city’s drop in crime, and after more than 30 years, Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University in Virginia lists broken-windows policing as something it needs to know more about before endorsing.But recent research shows broken-windows policy may have done his city more harm than good, and it’s been concluded other factors, such as increased police presence and a drop in unemployment, likely had a larger effect on New York City’s crime rate than did misdemeanor arrests.
In many cities, arrests for quality-of-life crimes have drawn increasing criticism as evidence emerged it has resulted in the over-policing and over-jailing of people of color.
Critics say this approach to policing creates instances where minor crimes have led to excessive force in otherwise harmless situations – such as in the case of Eric Garner, a man who was choked to death during a struggle with Staten Island police when they attempted to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes.
Putting an end to broken-windows policing is a top priority of the Black Lives Matter movement.
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In Multnomah County, where less than 6 percent of the population is black, 24 percent of people charged with quality-of-life crimes are black, according to data from the district attorney’s office obtained by Street Roots.
Now, even in New York City, policies are shifting away from prosecuting minor offenses.
On March 1, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced, with the blessing of the New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton – one of broken windows’ greatest supporters – that his office would no longer prosecute certain quality-of-life crimes.
The top prosecutor said in a press release, “By ensuring courts are not unnecessarily bogged down with minor offenses committed by those who pose no threat to public safety, we help focus police and prosecutorial resources on those who commit serious crimes.”
Last year in Portland, gang violence occurred at record-high levels. Earlier this month, Mayor Charlie Hales held a press conference in the wake of another spate of shootings, saying the city is on track to break those records again in 2016.
Meanwhile, Portland police struggle with what Chief Larry O’Dea told The Oregonian is a significant shortage of police officers due to vacancies. The bureau is still adjusting to past budget cuts, with additional proposed cuts looming on the horizon. And Multnomah County Circuit Court is so cash strapped, those who dial its main phone line between 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. get a message from Presiding Judge Nan Waller explaining, “due to the ongoing funding reductions to the circuit court, we have limited telephone service during the court’s business day.”
Despite shrinking court and police resources, a steady flow of low-level, non-violent offenders continues to be corralled through an overburdened criminal justice system.
Your friendly neighborhood prosecutor
In Multnomah County, there is a special team of prosecutors who focus, in part, on issuing charges for quality-of-life crimes.
These prosecutors work in the District Attorney’s Neighborhood Unit, a program that emerged as a pilot project around the same time broken-windows theory was gaining popularity.
A crowning achievement of the prosecutor’s office, the Neighborhood Unit was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it was created in 1990. It’s been highly lauded and replicated around the country in years since.
The model is known nationally as “community prosecution,” with prosecutors assigned to specific geographical areas. In Multnomah County, most occupy an office in their neighborhood’s police precinct. They work with the surrounding community and police to solve livability and low-level crime problems.
They also issue charges for about 5,000 misdemeanor crimes each year, although they don’t prosecute the cases themselves.
Between August 2014 and August 2015, they filed charges for 1,900 quality-of-life crimes referred to them, mainly by law enforcement. This included 414 disorderly conduct, 534 trespassing and 165 offensive littering charges.
(While the Neighborhood Unit also issues charges for crimes such as low-level theft, firearms possession, drug possession and traffic-related infractions, Street Roots did not include any of those offenses among the figures and data referenced in this article as quaity-of-life crimes.)
These deputy district attorneys (DDAs) can be assets to community members who want to get rid of a neighborhood nuisance or get legal advice regarding a collective issue.
They might work with property owners and police to issue trespassing exclusions to remove an unwanted element from a business district or neighborhood park, or rely on help from anonymous neighbors’ observations to obtain a search warrant for a drug house.
However, as Executive Director of Metropolitan Public Defenders Lane Borg points out, the program puts an area’s problems in the hands of prosecutors, whose main function is to charge people with crimes.
“If you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” he said. “We need to have social workers and housing people working on these problems.”
The National District Attorneys Association produced a study on the program between 1990 and 2005 suggesting the neighborhood DDA program contributed to Portland’s drop in crime – much like broken windows was believed to reduce crime in New York City. But during the same time span, crime was steadily dropping nationwide.
There is a unique feature of Multnomah County’s Neighborhood Unit not replicated in any other community prosecution program, as far as Street Roots could determine from speaking with multiple experts.
Two of the prosecutors’ salaries are paid by sources other than publicly funded grants and the office’s county-approved budget of $1.4 million.
Lloyd District business owners and TriMet each pay for their own prosecutor.
TriMet paid $206,633 for a full time prosecutor in 2016, and Lloyd paid $75,000 for a prosecutor it shares with the North-quadrant neighborhood.
Additionally, Portland Business Alliance provides support staff for the downtown neighborhood prosecutor.
These three prosecutors use their knowledge of the law and cooperation from the police in the precincts where they work to solve the crime-related issues that are of importance to TriMet, Portland Business Alliance and the Lloyd business district.
Together, they filed nearly 70 percent of all quality-of-life charges issued by the Neighborhood Unit from mid 2014 to mid 2015, with the TriMet and Downtown DDAs filing the vast majority.
At the time, there were seven neighborhoods, with Southeast, East, North and Gresham also represented. Their prosecutors filed the other 30 percent of quality-of-life charges.
Lloyd district mainly filed shoplifting charges, which were excluded from Street Roots analysis. However the Lloyd DDA has focused on removing gang members in the past by using tactics such as issuing exclusions and trespassing charges. This DDA was instrumental in pushing criminals out of Holladay Park.
In the Neighborhood Unit’s contract with Lloyd District businesses, the prosecutor’s job description includes reviewing and screening all offenses made known to him or her by business owners in the district and, “Assisting the District in the development of new City ordinances that will provide useful tools to law enforcement in an effort to establish and consistently maintain a behavior code for the district’s streets, sidewalks and parks.”
While no contract exists between the Portland Business Alliance and district attorney’s office, Deputy District Attorney Adam Gibbs supplied Street Roots with a partnership agreement dating back to 1994 that lays out the verbal agreement between Association for Portland Progress, which later merged with the Portland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to form Portland Business Alliance, and the district attorney’s office.
It states the association, whose budget was made possible by contributions from downtown property owners, would supply the district attorney’s office with a legal assistant and would assist with the installation and expense of a computer modem link for the DA’s network. It’s a partnership that’s continued under the Portland Business Alliance.
After conferring with several attorneys, Street Roots determined there aren’t any state statutes that explicitly forbid groups or organizations from funding their own prosecutors.
Both Lloyd and a portion of downtown are “enhanced services districts,” meaning that business owners and condominium property managers in those areas are assessed a fee that goes to pay for extra public services in their district, such as security, police, public transportation and prosecution.
Today there are eight prosecutors representing eight neighborhoods, with DDAs recently being added to represent Rockwood and Albina, both paid for with public funds. In Rockwood, the DDA focuses on livability issues, high-end property crimes and gangs, and in Albina, the DDA works in partnership with community pastors, police and the city’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention, also to combat gang violence.
While the Neighborhood Unit continues to expand, it began with just one prosecutor, paid for by the business owners in the Lloyd district.
As reported by Jim Redden at the time (“Hired Gun,” Willamette Week, 1990), government and civic leaders were concerned crime in the area could reduce benefits from recent investments, such as the addition of the Oregon Convention Center, a new office tower, additional Max infrastructure and the Lloyd Center shopping mall remodel.
A group of private business and property owners, known back then as the Holladay District Association, started paying the county to dedicate a prosecutor to focus solely on the area around their business and property interests.
This arrangement drew criticism at the program’s outset. Several defense attorneys and Gary Perlstein, an administration of justice professor at Portland State University, voiced their concerns to Willamette Week.
“It raises the question of who the (deputy) district attorney is working for, and whether he will do his job differently to meet the special needs of the people paying his salary,” Perlstein was quoted as saying.
Deputy District Attorney James Hayden, champion of Portland’s former drug-free zones, is the Neighborhood Unit supervisor and serves as the downtown DDA. He said these days, every neighborhood has a district attorney assigned to it, giving all county residents that “extra set of eyes” in the district attorney’s office.
But not all neighborhoods are created equal.
The East Precinct’s district attorney, for example, has a much larger geographical area to cover, and in the time-frame analyzed, wasn’t always staffed. Only 38 quality-of-life charges were from that position during the time frame Street Roots examined, compared to the downtown DDA’s 662, and Trimet’s 632.
Gresham’s DDA also covers an expansive area, working with police precincts in Troutdale, Portland and Fairview, as well as Gresham.
“Yeah, it’s spread out – no question,” said Hayden, when asked about the disproportionate sizes of the DDA’s neighborhoods.
“It’s not a perfect model,” he said, but added that all areas of the county have a representative prosecutor.
Street Roots asked if any group, a neighborhood association for example, could hire its own district attorney to solve hyper-local crime issues. Hayden said he wasn’t sure because no one has ever asked, but it’s not something a neighborhood association could afford.
“Do you know what neighborhood association budgets are? They have a few hundred dollars, so no – it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be these improvement districts that can self tax and want extra eyes on something,” said Hayden.
Street Roots asked Hayden if he thought police are more apt to arrest people for quality of life crimes when they know a prosecutor is going to back them up by pressing charges.
“I don’t think the police respond differently. They have a situation to deal with; they’re just going to deal with it as best they can.”
Wash, rinse, repeat
Working in tandem with Multnomah County’s community prosecution program, is Community Court. It’s where many quality-of-life cases end up.
But dwindling court resources forced the closure of courts located out in the communities, according to Hayden. Now Community Court is run out of the Justice Center in downtown Portland.
“When the court retreated from the neighborhoods,” said Hayden, “to me the soul of community court – I hate to say it – it went with it.”
Jane Fox, a Metropolitan Public Defender assigned to Community Court, agrees.
“It became something that was expedient, and a way of unclogging dockets as opposed to a way of helping people and providing them contact with the community,” she said.
Two-thirds of first time offenses are eligible to be dismissed if the accused successfully completes court-ordered community service or mandated mental health or addictions treatment.
“If you sign up for treatment, it can be a very involved treatment that the social worker recommends. You go to jail if you fail your treatment,” said Fox. “And if they do have mental health issues or addiction issues – treatment’s not an easy thing.”
According to the district attorney’s office, between 52 and 68 percent of Community Court defendants failed to complete either their assigned community service or treatment program each month over the past six months, although the office is unable to determine how many defendants completed a treatment program, specifically. Most get community service.
Deputy District Attorney Adam Gibbs said he’s looked into treatment completion in the past because there was a desire to know if what the office was doing was effective, however the information just isn’t tracked that way.
Borg, of Metropolitan Public Defenders, said there are better options, such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion in Seattle’s King County, where low-level drug and prostitution offenders are diverted into community-based treatment and support services such as housing, health care, job training, treatment and mental health support, instead of being booked into jail and prosecuted.
He said King County has seen positive results by requiring offenders to complete simple tasks, such as taking one class on harm reduction – like learning about a syringe exchange – rather than requiring compliance with a strictly regimented treatment program.
Fox said if the effectiveness of Multnomah County’s Community Court is based on whether or not there are repeat offenders, then that’s a goal that’s not being met.
“There’s a lot of people that repeat community court,” she said.
The data from cases issued by Multnomah County’s Neighborhood Unit showed many defendants were repeatedly charged with minor offenses over the course of a one-year period alone.
A theme emerged from an examination of the most frequent offenders – those who had been arrested five or more times.
One offender was a 28-year-old homeless man who’s been arrested for quality-of-life crimes 12 times since October 2013. Most of his arrests were for interfering with public transit, including the time he was drinking a beer in a bus shelter while he was excluded from TriMet property.
Each time he was arrested, booked into jail, sent through the criminal court system only to be re-arrested a month or two later.
Another repeat offender was arrested seven times and charged repeatedly with disorderly conduct and interfering with public transit. According to his court evaluation, he is also homeless and is self-reportedly schizophrenic.
In another case, a homeless man who is schizophrenic, a drug user, and who suffers from depression and PTSD was arrested six times. He was charged with crimes such as disorderly conduct, offensive littering and harassment.
Stopping the revolving door
In an effort to cut down on the revolving door to its jail, Clackamas County this spring launched its Transition Center in Oregon City.
The program, the first of its kind in Oregon, connects inmates with resources upon their release and also offers services to low-criminality citizens who have contact with law enforcement in an effort to keep them from going to jail in the first place.
“We have a population at our jail where many people are struggling with mental illness,” Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts told the county’s quarterly newsletter. “If you just boot them out the door, they can often end up right back in jail. The goal of the Transition Center is to break that pattern and change people’s lives.”
Repeat offenders account for more than half of those receiving a charge known as interfering with public transit, or IPT.
It’s a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, and during the one-year period between mid 2014 and 2015, TriMet’s prosecutor filed charges for more than 400 of them.
This controversial charge is often issued to fare-jumpers who have been excluded from TriMet property and have returned before the exclusionary period has ended.
When Street Roots first reported on this vague and over-used criminal charge, Fox said 99 percent of her clients in Community Court charged with IPT are accused of entering TriMet property while under an “exclusion.” She said in many cases, the rider has no idea they were excluded from TriMet property at the time of arrest, so it comes as a surprise when they find themselves facing significant criminal charges.
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She said since then, nothing has changed, and IPTs continue to make up a quarter of her caseload.
Street Roots estimate prosecuting IPT charges cost courts in the Portland metro area approximately $1.4 million in 2014. This does not include costs associated with arresting offenders, transporting them and lodging them in county jails. This estimate was derived from the average cost of prosecuting a misdemeanor in Oregon, determined to be $1,679 by a University of Oregon report created for the Criminal Justice Commission in 2010. More recent financial information regarding the cost of prosecuting low-level crimes in Oregon or in the county is not available.
When a bill was introduced in 2015 to change the language of this charge so that it couldn’t be used in the place of crimes that carry a lesser penalty such as trespassing, disorderly conduct or theft of services, TriMet’s prosecutor and TriMet’s lobbyist met with legislators and convinced them it’s a tool transit police need to maintain order.
But what order it’s maintaining is questionable. An examination of all IPTs charged by the neighborhood DDA in the course of one year revealed more than half were issued to repeat offenders who had within that same period, been issued at least two IPTs.
While TriMet, PBA and Lloyd district business interests help fund prosecutors, they do not contribute funding to the jail where offenders are booked, to the nonprofit tasked with offering those charged a public defense, or to the courts, where the cases are processed.
On March 4, Borg sat before City Club members with Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill and other law enforcement representatives. They had been invited to the forum in downtown Portland’s Sentinel Hotel to discuss the findings of the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Report by the MacArthur Foundation that had revealed widespread disparities in the county’s criminal justice system, with blacks being six times more likely than whites to be in jail.
Burg told the room the disparities outlined in the report reflect thousand of decisions made by the police and prosecutors, and it’s the details behind those arrests that need to be better understood.
“It’s the chippy charges – it’s the small cases,” Borg said. “We are putting kids on the path of the criminal justice system with trespasses, with resisting arrest, with interfering with public transportation.”
Contact Street Roots staff reporter Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.