By David Rogers, Executive Director
 
Correction: Previously, this article incorrectly stated that District Attorney Josh Marquis had never faced an opponent. Mr. Marquis did face an opponent in his first district attorney election in 1994. 
 
Last weekend, we launched They Report to You, a powerful new campaign that aims first to increase the public’s knowledge about the role of district attorneys (DAs) and second, use that knowledge to push for greater engagement around much-needed criminal justice reforms. I was excited to see over 100 people join us at the Beaverton City Park to kick off this important work.
 
They Report to You clearly struck a nerve with some DAs as Mr. John Foote (Clackamas) and Mr. Joshua Marquis (Clatsop) have lashed out against us in the press. (Mr. Foote even put out a press release about it.) Their responses underscore exactly why we need this campaign. They are so unaccustomed to the idea that they can and should be held accountable by voters, that the very notion sends them off the rails.
 
First of all, let’s make one thing clear: The suggestion that the ACLU of Oregon is doing something outside of the bounds of our non-profit status by educating voters about the role of district attorneys is incorrect and irresponsible. We are and always have been non-partisan, meaning we do not endorse or support any candidates. 
 
What exactly is controversial about the idea that district attorneys, as elected leaders, should be accountable to voters? What is controversial about a campaign designed to make sure people understand the role of a group of elected leaders who are very powerful, but have consistently flown under the radar? This is what democracy looks like.
 
In the weeks leading up to the official campaign launch we partnered with the Bus Project and knocked on over 15,000 doors just in Marion and Washington Counties. We spoke to voters about what they knew about district attorneys and what voters wanted from the criminal justice system. We learned, for instance, that less than two out of five know DAs are elected. The lack of information about such a powerful group of elected leaders highlights why we need this campaign.
 
Let’s take a closer look at the rest of what they said about the ACLU of Oregon and the launch of our campaign: They Report to You. 

District Attorney Marquis questions who the ACLU of Oregon is accountable to and tries to emphasize his support from voters because he has been elected seven times. What he fails to say is that he has only faced an opponent once. In 1994. Unfortunately, the Clatsop County voters haven't had much of a choice other than Mr. Marquis. And this is a consistent theme across the state - eight out of every 10 district attorney race in Oregon is uncontested. The lack of choices reinforces the dynamics that voters aren’t paying attention, and huge groups of voters choose to never vote in DA elections at all. We need to change this dynamic. When it comes to DAs, our democracy has atrophied.
 
Mr. Marquis also seems to be offended by suggestions that his politics are reminiscent of the Trump administration. It is undeniable that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to ramp the War on Drugs back up, and Mr. Marquis has lobbied in a very similar fashion. His opposition to reforming Oregon’s drug policy is absolutely reminiscent of what we are seeing from the Trump Administration. Despite his outspoken opposition, the Oregon legislature reduced the penalty for small-scale possession of drugs, a move that an overwhelming number of Oregon voters support.  We proudly disagree with Mr. Marquis’ stance on drug sentencing. We need an emphasis on treatment and prevention and policies that help people rebuild their lives. 
 
District Attorney Foote, whose only contested race was in 2000, took things to an even more absurd and alarming place by suggesting that Oregon doesn’t have a problem with racial disparities in the justice system, which is a recurring theme for him. When the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission released data on racial disparity of drug convictions last year, Mr. Foote publicly questioned the findings. If he is satisfied with the status quo regarding how the criminal justice system treats people of color, that speaks volumes about  how disconnected he is with Oregonians’ values around fairness. 
 
They Report to You is built on the observation that district attorneys as a collective body have habitually opposed important reforms and they focus on defending a system that they mostly control. Acknowledging that problems exist in a complicated system is not necessarily an admission of guilt; we need less defensiveness. But when any elected leaders deny we still have very serious problems  in the criminal justice system, they are clearly part of the problem.
 
No Mr. Foote, everything is not ok.
 
Oregon does not need defensiveness from our elected officials, we need leadership. We need leaders who are willing to acknowledge that core problems like racial disparity exist, that we can’t warehouse people with mental illness in our jails, and that the policies of the War on Drugs are a failure. It is time to be part of the conversation and action focused on solving the system’s problems. 
 
Not all DAs are resistant to change, and we would like to work with district attorneys who are open to reforms that address critical issues facing Oregon’s justice system.  As I said at our campaign launch on Sunday, DAs have a tremendous amount of power, which means they also have a tremendous amount of power to make change. 
 
 
 

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