Multnomah County’s Top Prosecutor Is Betting His Future on an Aggressive Program Designed to Keep Violent Offenders Out of Prison

Whether the strategy works will depend on voters’ appetite for criminal justice reform during an upswing in violent crime.

JJ Derie was looking at hard time. The 40-year-old was addicted to meth and living on Portland’s streets when he shot Tyler Roley in the knee over a stolen dog in September 2020.

After Roley identified him to police, Derie, 40, was arrested six months later and charged with first-degree assault—a charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of more than seven years in prison.

But, despite a guilty plea, Derie may not go to prison for his offense.

That’s because he’s one of the first participants in a new Multnomah County program—the first in the nation, according to the judge that runs it—that allows people convicted of violent offenses to avoid prison time if they commit to behavioral health treatment.

“It gave me the opportunity to get out and start my life over again,” says Derie, who is now sober, housed and employed.

For this, he can thank Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. In a way, both of their futures hinge on the success of this novel program, called STEP, short for Strategic Treatment and Engagement Program.

Schmidt announced his candidacy for reelection last week. But he’s been shepherding the launch of STEP for nearly a year, without publicly discussing its existence until recently.

Word started spreading in December, when Schmidt told county leaders that not even one of the program’s 60 participants had been referred back to his office on new charges. (A spokesperson for the DA’s office told WW that a participant was later arrested for a misdemeanor during reporting for this story, but declined to say who.)

Still, the program is the clearest example of Schmidt putting his reform philosophy into action. It comes at a pivotal time. Rising crime has put the city on edge, and Portlanders are showing a renewed appetite for the kind of tough-on-crime policies Schmidt ran against in 2020.

Schmidt campaigned—and overwhelmingly won—on a reform agenda. He promised to fight Measure 11, the state law voters passed in 1994 to set mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes.

He has directed his prosecutors in carefully selected cases, generally offenders willing to participate in behavioral health treatment, to reduce Measure 11 charges to lower-level felonies and offer probation instead, effectively making good on his campaign promise by bypassing Salem and a statewide voter referendum. Offenders convicted of murder, attempted murder or sex crimes are ineligible.

It’s not uncommon for prosecutors to offer defendants plea deals. What’s different with STEP is the severity of the charges being reduced and the extensive supervision being offered in place of prison.

As recently as 2021, prosecutors never reduced first-degree assault to probation, explains Mariel Mota, the prosecutor overseeing the Measure 11 probation program for Schmidt’s office. For Derie, they did.

Schmidt’s claim: More prison time alone won’t make Portland safer. “Working to improve the criminal justice system and public safety are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably linked,” he tells WW.

Whether the strategy works will depend both on voters’ appetite for criminal justice reform during an upswing in violent crime—and whether his new programs work.

Schmidt has actually introduced two new programs.

They operate very differently, but both have a similar result: no prison for people booked for violent offenses with mandatory minimum sentences.

The first, STEP, offers intensive community probation in exchange for a guilty plea. After the defendant is interviewed by an evaluator and a judge, prosecutors can elect to reduce the charge, generally assault or robbery, to one not covered by Measure 11. Offenders avoid prison time, if they commit to a minimum of one year of intensive behavioral health treatment.

The second, a partnership with a local nonprofit called the Insight Alliance, allows victims to pursue justice outside the court system. If offenders complete the program, which includes mediation, counseling and other social services, their charges are dismissed entirely.

Proponents of these programs say they’re more fair—and more effective—than the status quo. “The law has given us a sledgehammer,” Mota tells WW. “STEP gives us a scalpel.”

The progress of its 60 participants was easily visible at a makeshift art studio in early January. There, more than a dozen were assembled for a “drink and draw” social hour—without the drink.

Everyone was sober. They had to be. A condition of participation is random, up to twice-weekly, urine tests.

“This program is very hard. Very, very hard,” says Amber Dement, 36. Its weekly regime of classes, counseling, drug testing and court hearings amounts to a full-time job, she explains.

She was arrested four years ago for her involvement in a brutal raid of a marijuana grow house in Southeast Portland. An accomplice beat the property owner, Joshua Morrison, in the head with a shotgun while Dement ran to the basement to steal his cash, according to an account of the crime filed in court by prosecutors.

Dement spent two years in jail on charges of first-degree robbery before pleading guilty to lesser charges. She was STEP court’s first client. The program got her into a residential alcohol treatment program. The anniversary of her sobriety date is in April. She now works in a sandwich shop and sees her kids every day.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” she says.

She’d be in prison. And that, says Morrison’s mother, Leslie Sears, is exactly where Dement ought to be.

“You always think, oh, they will be caught and justice will be served. But we don’t believe that anymore,” Sears tells WW.

The bones around her son’s eye were reconstructed with a titanium plate, which the family raised money to pay for with help from GoFundMe.

Sears is dismayed by Schmidt’s reforms. “Portland has become such a mess, and it can only be increasing the mess,” she says.

John Foote, former Clackamas County district attorney, agrees. He calls the studies touted by reform-minded attorneys “propaganda” and Schmidt’s efforts to skirt Measure 11 “a lack of respect for the vote of the people.”

“The truth is, violent crime is reduced by proportional punishment and empowered, effective enforcement” he says.

The testing ground for Schmidt’s new program is Courtroom 8B in the Multnomah County Courthouse.

There, twice a week, Judge Eric Bloch presides over STEP court. Every person he considers is someone originally charged with a Measure 11 offense. Instead, they’re under his supervision for at least a year as they undergo treatment.

Bloch has been on the bench since 2003. He ran Multnomah County’s drug diversion court, a similar divert-and-treat program for offenders facing felony possession charges, and more recently, he served as a “peer reviewer” for similar courts popping up across the state.

That is, until Measure 110, the 2020 Oregon law decriminalizing hard drugs, made such courts obsolete. The county Department of Community Justice redirected its funding to STEP and gave it an $850,000 budget. It’s the first time in the country that the treatment court model has been applied to violent crimes, Bloch says.

But the emphasis on staying sober remains. More than 90% of people in the program have mental health or substance use disorders, Bloch estimates.

As each participant comes to the bench, Bloch asks for their sobriety date—and proceeds to chastise or cajole depending on the latest report from their probation officer.

On a recent Wednesday, it was Derie’s turn. Nine months sober.

He pulled out his phone and explained that he kept his old mug shots to remind himself of his progress. “It’s bordering on miraculous,” Bloch said.

Bloch knew JJ’s story, but he wanted the newcomers in the back to hear it too. “We use the courtroom as theater,” he explained to WW.

At times, Bloch and the courtroom applaud. Other times, Bloch threatens.

There are many carrots in Bloch’s arsenal: Starbucks gift cards for reaching each new “phase” of treatment (there are five, each at least several months long). A “quick list” so those doing well can jump the line and leave court early. And most importantly, he says, is his approval.

“You identify the behaviors that you want to promote—you incentivize them to do those things,” Bloch says. Those behaviors are simple: follow the treatment regimen, obey parole officers’ orders, show up in court.

If they don’t, Bloch has sticks. If someone doesn’t make it to a court date or a meeting, he’ll assign homework—which can range from writing an essay to nights in jail.

For “something really bad,” Bloch can revoke probation and send a participant to prison. So far, he’s only had to do that twice, he says. In both cases, participants were imprisoned after repeatedly walking away from treatment.

STEP is the fulfillment of a careerlong dream, Bloch says, made possible by a district attorney willing to take a risk.

“If I send someone to prison for 70 months, the public is going to be safe from them for 70 months,” he says. “But what about when they get out? They’re untreated.”

When people enter the program, they’re nearly always unhoused, often suffering from crippling addictions. Now, Bloch says, “100% of them are housed, 100% of them are in treatment.”

Schmidt is betting his future on offenders like Matthew Freeman. It’s a significant risk.

Freeman, a 28-year-old shipyard worker pleaded guilty Jan. 11 to crashing into another driver while intoxicated. He was charged with assault.

Now, he was sitting in the back of Bloch’s courtroom.

Bloch asked for his sobriety date. The answer was two days prior. Bloch glanced at the prosecutor, then turned back to Freeman.

During his settlement conference, Freeman claimed to have accidentally taken an M30 pill, thinking it was a painkiller. The pill was fentanyl laced with meth.

Then, Freeman admitted to popping another. Bloch wondered out loud: Can an accident really happen twice in a row?

At Bloch’s gentle urging, Freeman broke. He admitted he’d been using for months. He apologized.

“It’s OK—that’s what we’re here for,” Bloch told Freeman. “Now, we begin.”