A panel responsible for formulating Oregon's criminal justice policy has been operating in violation of state law for the past two years.
In 1995, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission was created to "improve the legitimacy, efficiency, and effectiveness of state and local criminal justice systems [by] providing a centralized and impartial forum for statewide policy development and planning."
By law, the CJC consists of nine members. Seven are appointed by the governor and one each by the Senate president and the speaker of the Oregon House.
In order for the commission to be "impartial," the statute that lays out the commission's responsibilities says this about the partisan makeup of the governor's appointments: "Not more than four members may belong to the same political party."
But records show that since Feb. 14, 2018, five of Gov. Kate Brown's seven appointees have been Democrats.
In that time, CJC policy discussions and research have underpinned the aggressive reforms that began in 2013 with the Justice Reinvestment Act, which was aimed at reducing incarceration rates. Those CJC-backed reforms continued in 2019, when lawmakers voted to all but end Oregon's death penalty.
Republicans, who have often chafed at Democrats' reform agenda in Salem, were unaware of the commission's makeup.
"The Criminal Justice Commission pushed major policy changes through the Legislature while illegally constituted," said House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) in a statement. "This is of real concern and calls into question the validity of their work. Appointments to the commission that meet the requirements set in Oregon law should be made immediately."
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, a sometime critic of the reforms, was more blunt.
"This is what we get with a one-party state," says Foote, who adds that Brown and her supporters have perverted the mission of the panel.
"They've forgotten why it was created: to be impartial, fact-based and nonpartisan," he says. "The idea was to have a place that wouldn't be driven by ideology."
Foote, who will retire at the end of this year, has battled reformers for much of the past decade. He says an increase in recidivism during that period should cause all Oregonians to question the commission's work.
Mike Schmidt, the commission's director, is currently on leave as he runs for Multnomah County district attorney. Schmidt referred questions to his deputy, Ken Sanchagrin, who pointed upstairs.
"Commission staff is usually minimally involved in the appointment process as our primary role has been to keep the governor's office apprised of upcoming vacancies," Sanchagrin said in an email.
A 2018 Senate confirmation document prepared for Brown's most recent appointment to the commission, Jessica Kampfe, a Salem public defender, incorrectly stated Kampfe was a non-affiliated voter. Her voter file shows instead that Kampfe has been registered as a Democrat since 2008.
Brown's spokeswoman Liz Merah acknowledged Kampfe is a Democrat.
"Upon review, it appears that five of the seven governor-appointed CJC commissioners are currently registered as Democrats," Merah said. "This was a mistake, of which we were unaware. We are consulting CJC and legal counsel on next steps."
Josephine County Counsel Wally Hicks, the only Republican currently on the CJC, says he was unaware of the legal limit on the number of Democrats but says he's found the panel to operate fairly. "It's been even-handed," Hicks says. Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, another commission member, says he's disappointed to learn from WW that the CJC included too many Democrats. "We need to be in compliance with the statue," Underhill says.
Merah said the mistake was unintentional and not an attempt to stack the deck.
"One of the governor's goals with boards and commissions is to ensure a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints are represented," Merah said. "Specifically with the Criminal Justice Commission, the governor makes appointment decisions based on additional statutory criteria, including geographic diversity and political party diversity."