For the past year, Multnomah County has been wrestling with a thorny problem. It takes months, if not years, for people suspected of crimes to face trial. In the meantime, who should be held in jail?
Some, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, have argued that the current system is too lenient. They cite news reports of people released following accusations of heinous crimes, and point to repeat offenders who commit new crimes while awaiting trial on old ones.
Others say the county holds too many people behind bars as it is. There’s been a string of deaths in the county’s understaffed jails, and countless people inside would certainly be better off getting treatment elsewhere for their severe mental illnesses and substance use disorders.
One thing both sides agree on: What we have now needs fixing.
So the county has continued to tweak its pretrial detention system. It rolled out new guidelines that determine when a criminal defendant should be held in jail overnight prior to arraignment, and a new risk-assessment system to help a judge decide whether to release them.
Meanwhile, the county has tested reforms to the arraignments themselves, which proponents say will make those decisions more fair.
Right now, arraignments happen weekdays in special courtrooms in the county’s Justice Center, which also houses the downtown jail. Defendants who spent the night in jail are led, shackled, by a sheriff’s deputy into a glass box facing a judge.
For most, this is their first time meeting a defense lawyer—a contracted public defender who handles all of the day’s cases. They speak for a few minutes through a slit in the glass box, and then the defender and a prosecutor each make their cases to the judge who decides whether to set bail and for how much.
It’s often the most important moment in a criminal case, explains Grant Hartley, director of Metropolitan Public Defenders, which employs the arraignment lawyers. He points to research showing that people who end up being held in jail are 25% more likely to plead guilty and twice as likely to receive a sentence of incarceration.
And yet, he argues, the deck is stacked against defendants arguing for their freedom. Prosecutors can simply read from police reports to decide whether to argue defendants are dangerous, while defendants’ attorneys have only a few moments to hear the other side of the story from their clients.
“What you have is an imbalance in information,” Hartley says. “It really is an act of improvisation.”
A “meaningful first appearance.” That’s the name for the county’s new pilot program, in which arraignments are moved to the afternoon, giving public defenders time to confer with their clients in the morning.
To make this process easier, the jail is remodeling a special unit to hold suspects awaiting arraignment. It’ll speed up the process, Hartley says, and hopefully reduce the amount of time it takes to move people to and from the courtroom, which has been fraught with delays amid short staffing at the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.
The county ran a two-week pilot of afternoon arraignments back in March. Now, the jail is targeting October for a full rollout of the dorm changes. “The sheriff fully supports this plan,” Deputy John Plock of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office tells WW.. “It will not affect, or be affected by, staffing and will have no fiscal impact.”
IS THERE PUSHBACK?
The court says the scheduling change won’t happen by this fall. There’s other priorities, spokeswoman Rachel McCarthy tells WW. Plus, “The pilot did not go completely smoothly,” she says, citing the need to hire evening staff.
When Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez heard about the plan at a July meeting of the county’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, he expressed concern that the county was rolling over to demands of public defenders without considering the impact on public safety.
“It is incredibly frustrating to see repeat criminals quickly back on the street after arrest,” he said in a later statement to WW. “There is a massive disconnect between the region’s decision-makers and everyday Portlanders—the former seems more focused on restorative justice, accelerating the release of defendants and criminals, and experiments.”
Gonzalez remains the lone voice of dissent at the public safety council’s monthly meetings.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said the county was implementing changes to arraignments this fall. In fact, while the program has been piloted, Multnomah County Circuit Court has not agreed to launch it this fall. The article also misattributed a quote describing the Sheriff’s support for the plan to Grant Hartley. It was a quote from Deputy John Plock of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. WW regrets the errors.