You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Portland gets first outsider district attorney in Mike Schmidt, part of national wave of progressive prosecutors

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 5/21/2020 By Noelle Crombie, oregonlive.com
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Mike Schmidt, 39, pictured here on Wed., May 20, 2020, won the Multnomah County District Attorney's race in Tuesday's election. Dave Killen / Staff © Dave Killen/The Oregonian/oregonlive.com/TNS Mike Schmidt, 39, pictured here on Wed., May 20, 2020, won the Multnomah County District Attorney's race in Tuesday's election. Dave Killen / Staff

Mike Schmidt emerged Tuesday as the decisive winner of the Multnomah County district attorney’s race, becoming the country’s latest criminal justice change agent to win a big-city DA race.

Schmidt, 39, of Southeast Portland campaigned on a platform of upending what he characterized as a business-as-usual approach to prosecution. He pledged to prioritize addiction and mental health treatment over prisons, ensure that cops who engage in brutality or misconduct are held accountable and review claims of wrongful convictions.

He opposes the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentencing, such as Measure 11, and supports policies that aim to keep youths charged with crimes in juvenile court.

He defeated longtime state and federal prosecutor Ethan Knight.

With Schmidt’s election, Multnomah County joins other places, like Harris County, Texas, and Philadelphia, where voters have swept reform-minded candidates into office. Among the congratulatory calls Schmidt received was one from San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who ran on a platform similar to Schmidt’s.

In general, the movement nationally has been well-funded and focused on drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and specialty courts as alternatives to incarceration.

Schmidt raised more than $233,000, including an estimated $26,500 from the Safety & Justice PAC, a political group tied to the influential criminal justice reform group, Partnership for Safety and Justice of Portland.

His landslide election marks the end of an era of sorts at the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, which had been shaped by the legacy of longtime DA Mike Schrunk. Schrunk led the office for 32 years and was succeeded by one of his own longtime lieutenants, Rod Underhill, who went on to hold the position for seven years.

It was Schrunk who gave Schmidt his first job out of law school in 2008. He worked misdemeanors and property crimes, then in 2013 left to work for the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and then the Criminal Justice Commission, which he has led since 2015.

Steve Kanter, a retired law professor and dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School, said district attorneys, especially in Multnomah County, influence not only how cases are handled, but also can help shape policy statewide.

“District attorneys are in many ways among the most important people in the criminal justice system,” he said. “Their influence is outsized.”

Schmidt’s election is part of a national conversation over the “irrationality of our system,” said Kanter, who supported Schmidt’s candidacy.

“I do think new blood is useful and, not disparaging any of our former DAs, any institution needs outside fresh perspectives from time to time,” he said.

Schmidt spoke on Tuesday about what his election means and what lies ahead. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Where did you watch the election results and how did you celebrate your win in this strange time of a pandemic.

Schmidt: I watched the results at my next-door neighbor’s house with a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old that go to bed at 7:30 p.m., right at the worst time for election results to come in. We wanted to be in a place where I didn’t have to worry about making too much noise so (I) watched next door and just had a couple friends there, socially distanced on the back patio. We had the campaign team, my campaign manager and other campaign staff in the living room. We were all separated and able to safely watch the results come in.

What’s the takeaway from this election?

Schmidt: I think really the only takeaway I can have is the voters of Multnomah County are ready to see a change, that there is widespread recognition – and I got this from talking to people as I campaigned – there are just so many issues with our criminal justice system, whether its over-incarceration and spending too much money and not getting results or seeing our jails and and prisons as homeless shelters and our biggest mental health institutions or the racial disparity in our justice system. There are so many things to work on and to try to improve. The message I take is voters are ready to try some new things.

In your statement after your win you pledged to put together an advisory committee with key leaders. What types of experience or backgrounds will the people on that committee have and what’s their role in your transition?

Schmidt: I am going to be looking toward a lot of the same folks who supported this campaign, looking to community organizations but also looking to some other groups as well -- business leaders and law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys. I want to have people who are real experts, who understand exactly what is going on on the ground. Although it wasn’t that long ago that I was in the county, my information is a little bit dated. I am going to have to be brought up to speed on exactly what specific things are happening right now and what areas we need to start focusing on. I hope to have a broad coalition of folks willing to help me out.

What’s going to be your first order of business?

Schmidt: Highest on the to-do list is really going to be understanding and working with Rod Underhill and his team to see where things are, especially with the COVID crisis going on. There is going to be a huge backlog of cases that just are unable to be prosecuted at this moment for very good, legitimate public health reasons. I am anticipating that Janurary, when I take over, is not only going to be hopefully back to more business as usual but on top of that, having a big backlog of cases that need to go through the system.

That will be my first order of business: how to handle those cases in an office that is thinly staffed compared to other offices in similar-sized cities.

That is really going to be the very first challenge – how to manage what I think will be a lot more work with less resources.

In the era of COVID-19, you are looking at what is likely to be a grim budget reality. How will you address potential budget shortfalls?

Schmidt: I will have to understand the magnitude of what I am facing, but then it really starts from what absolutely has to happen for public safety. You start with the most serious crimes in our community, when people are injured, shot, murdered. All the most serious crimes that we have to prosecute. That’s not a place we can cut resources so you go down from there and hopefully try some different things. I am thinking about misdemeanors and low-level crimes. Are there ways to look at the community court model? Maybe thinking about how to incorporate a more restorative justice approach – can we do things that hold people accountable but at the same time resolve their cases quickly?

As executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, you are basically a full-time number cruncher when it comes to criminal justice stats in Oregon. You have said data will help shape your approach to prosecution. Practically speaking, how will that change how the office prosecutes cases?

Schmidt: Data that you can use to make decisions is only as good as the data that’s coming in. Having a case management system that’s not friendly to that is going to be the first challenge to using data in the office. But hopefully once we can get that online, then it’s just a matter of figuring out how to pull information from it and how to make it usable.

What I have done at the state level is put it into dashboards where you can try different things -- you can cut up the data by race and ethnicity and look at different crime types.

But then looking at what kind of results we are getting when we are recommending plea deals? The district attorney has a lot of power and authority to recommend sentences to the court so when we are making sentencing recommendations, what kind of outcomes are we getting? What are the longtime results of a probation offer versus a prison offer?

The district attorney plays such a major role in what sentences are put down for people. How does that impact long-term success or recidivism in our community.

Can you talk about how you view the role of transparency in the district attorney’s office?

Schmidt: It’s my goal to make this district attorney office the most transparent in the country.

(Schmidt discussed his plan to release aggregate data on the types of crimes and demographics of people prosecuted by the office.)

What are the recidivism rates of the crimes in these different types of crimes that we are prosecuting? I know from looking at the state data that certain types of crimes have way higher recidivism rates than others and so you are able to drill down and say OK, what we are doing in terms of sentencing practices around, for example, people (charged with) possession of controlled substance? They have an 70 to 80 percent recidivism rate so it’s not working. Can we do something different?

If you are using the data right, it asks or begs more questions than it answers, but it allows you to keep moving.

In your platform you cited your willingness to reexamine wrongful conviction claims. Some DA offices around the country have conviction review or conviction integrity units. How will that effort look in your administration?

Schmidt: I would love to have a unit to examine cases. Sometimes, we have seen this historically, the science changes. For example, bite mark evidence now is not seen as good science. Well, there was a time when that was used by prosecutors and not with malice or ill will but the science has moved on. I would love an integrity unit that was up to date on forensic science to both make sure that what we are currently employing in the office is the cutting edge of where we should be and to review old cases.

The biggest challenge is budgetary constraints and working on what services absolutely must be provided to do the day to day. It’s going to be a challenge to figure out how to use some resources for that, but it’s something I am committed to. If it has to start off on a case-by-case basis, that is where we will start, but I would love to get to the point where we have a functional, high-level unit.

You are coming into the office as an outsider, which is unusual for DA offices in Oregon. Have you heard from Underhill since your victory? And regarding organization and staff, what changes are you considering?

Schmidt: I have heard from Rod. He actually called me the day before the results just to say ‘good luck tomorrow’ and we had a short, nice conversation and when the results came in last night he sent me a short text message congratulating me. I appreciated that outreach.

I have heard from the prosecuting attorneys union. Their representative also reached out and said that they are excited to work with me and get behind me and so we are looking forward to figuring that out.

My big focus on changing things in the office is really going to be back to the things we have touched on, which is looking at resources and budgetary constraints but it is also an opportunity to have someone who is as you put it is an outsider. Coming in, I am open to new ideas, new ways of doing things.

I have talked to a bunch of the attorneys in that office over the course of the campaign and they have a lot of ideas about how we could do things differently in terms of the structure of the office. The way the units are currently split up is a function of the way things have been done for a long time. I am going to be open to their feedback on what they think would work better in terms of spreading out the workload equitably.

They have had high turnover with attorneys in their office and a lot of it has to do with burnout factor. I am going to be very focused on how can we retain attorneys in that office. How can we mitigate burnout by spreading workload around as much as we can. I think will be structural things we can do. The good thing is I am not tethered to the way we have done things in the past. I am open to the feedback of the people closest to the ground and also community members -- what they would like to see.

Your victory is part of a national trend of progressive prosecutors being ushered into big city district attorneys offices. How do you see your win fitting into that big picture?

Schmidt: I do think it does fit into what we are seeing nationally and I am excited about that. I am excited about Portland being part of that conversation because what I have learned at the Criminal Justice Commission is you can learn a lot from the way other people are doing things. They have a lot of the same issues that we have and they are trying different approaches and we should embrace that and learn from what’s working for them and what’s not.

I am still pretty humbled, overwhelmed. It’s been a long process campaigning. But I am so pleased that we had this conversation with our community members. My hat’s off to Ethan Knight. I think he ran a great campaign. It was about the issues. I had people come up to me to tell me how great they thought that was. This was two people with competing philosophies in some regards, in some ways similar, but we got to have that conversation and it’s one we haven’t had in over four decades.

-- Noelle Crombie; ncrombie@oregonian.com; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie

Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.

———

©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From OregonLive.com

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon