Brian Decker, County District Attorney – Candidate Interview
By Kristen Accardi, WCD Communications Team volunteer
WCD: What inspired you to run for District Attorney?
BD: Well I’ve been a lawyer working in the criminal justice system for around a decade now. I have been a federal prosecutor in the Justice Department under President Obama. I have been a public defender for over 4 years here in Washington County. I have seen that the approach that the current District Attorney takes in Washington County is extreme in the old fashion, tough on crime, war on drugs, lock them all up and throw away the key direction. In fact, it was a culture shock to me when I first began working in Washington County to see this approach. I’m not going to say that that the other jurisdictions where I worked on either side of the aisle were particularly progressive or reform minded, but the way that the Washington County District Attorney’s office has been running things has been extreme and it’s been creating a lot of bad outcomes for a lot of folks in the community, particularly people who have been made most vulnerable to both crime and criminal justice tactics that are that are oppressive – so black and brown communities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ folks are seeing bad outcomes because of this approach that is prioritizing over punitiveness and not doing enough to address the needs of rehabilitation and prevention in the community to make us safer and healthier and a more just place.
WCD: Can you give us an example of some of the bad outcomes that you’re seeing?
BD: Yeah, we have here in Washington County the worst rate of what’s called recidivism in the metro area. So that’s the rate of people who are reoffending after they’ve gone through the system, after they’ve gotten their conviction, they finished their sentence, and they’ve been out. The worst rate of people being arrested a year after the fact, or up to three years after the fact, worse than Multnomah County, worse than Clackamas County – here in Washington County. And that’s indicative of a revolving door at the jail. We’re just having the same people come back through the system over and over and over again without ever addressing their underlying problems. Now, having worked on the front lines in the criminal courts here in Washington County, I’ve seen that a lot of crime is driven by what I call crimes of desperation. So underlying problems like addiction, mental illness, homelessness, just poverty more broadly. When those problems aren’t treated in the community, some number of people who are dealing with those problems end up in the criminal justice system. And now we’ve got to deal with all those human beings and all those problems, in the jails and in the courts, and it is over filling our jail. It is clogging our courts with people whose problems are left unaddressed and they keep coming through again and again.
We can do better by diverting more people away from incarceration and into treatment programs, and into housing programs, and into community service – and diverting them earlier on in the chain. What I’ve seen in Washington County is yes, we have treatment programs and yes, people who are in the criminal justice system can eventually get access to those treatment programs, but only if the District Attorney is willing to divert them from jail into those programs, or divert them from the prison sentence that is presumptive, or in some cases even mandatory, based on what a person was charged with. This District Attorney’s office has been very selective in the people that it allows to go into those programs, and even for those that it allows to go into a program, it insists on them doing it after they work their whole way through a criminal case. And plead guilty. And in some cases either get sentenced and placed on probation, or at the very least plead guilty and then placed on what’s called diversion – meaning they have that guilty plea on their record, but they may be able to get it taken off at some point in the future once they complete their treatment programs. What that means is that those folks have been waiting around, sometimes in jail, or at the very least going through multiple court hearings with a lawyer appointed, talking about whether or not they’re going to trial – you know the whole bureaucracy – before eventually they get access to the treatment and rehabilitation programs that they need. And by that point, not only have we wasted a lot of resources to go into that wait, we have also in many cases made those people worse off by that wait, by not getting them into the programs that they need sooner. This means that it’s going to be harder work to help them at that later point in time than it would have been if we had been able to divert them earlier.
WCD: Recently, the largest public defense firm in Washington county announced that they are going to stop taking new cases for 4 weeks. Since public defenders represent citizens who cannot afford a private lawyer, this seems like a huge equity issue in our justice system right now. The public defenders have asked the Washington County DAs office to stop charging misdemeanor property crimes to help reduce the caseload and help them focus on the felonies and other more serious crimes. Kevin Barton has refused, and has instead blamed the public defenders for making the situation worse and not utilizing their resources properly. As both a former public defender and a former prosecutor, you’ve represented both sides of the justice system – so I’m interested in how you’d weigh in on this issue. Do you support Barton’s position?
BD: No, it is absurd and misguided and myopic. Kevin Barton has basically done one thing his entire career, and been in one office his entire career, and has this very narrow vision of what is required in the justice system and what is going to be his goal. And what his goal tends to be is how to get easy wins. How to get easy convictions. How to get people into jail or prison sentences. And from that point of view, public defenders are just standing in the way. What people who have a diversity of experience in the criminal justice system are able to see, is that we need all of the actors in the system. We need judges doing their jobs, we need prosecutors doing their jobs and we need defense attorneys doing their jobs, in order to make the system work right, in order to protect your constitutional rights, and to make sure that when somebody is convicted that we can believe in the legitimacy of the conviction and believe that they’re getting fairly treated.
Kevin Barton doesn’t seem to see the role that he plays in making the system run either efficiently or inefficiently. And he’s been making it run very inefficiently. He’s been taking a huge amount of taxpayer money into his office and having people wait around in an over filled jail and clogging the courts with all of these cases all at once, and slow walking them. And we need to be running things much more efficiently. Now he says that the idea that he can run things any differently means somebody is asking him to just drop cases, and he told The Oregonian he’s going to charge every crime that walks in the door. But that’s obviously not true, because he is refusing to charge certain crimes. It was just reported in OPB that his office declined to prosecute this nurse at Coffee Creek, who is now charged with sexually assaulting a dozen women in custody at Coffee Creek women’s prison and now has been charged by Federal prosecutors who had to come in and do what Kevin Barton’s office wouldn’t do. We also just recently had a report that his office declined to prosecute the Portland Timbers athlete who was accused of domestic violence. It’s clear that their office is making some decisions about what crimes they are going to charge and which people they’re going to charge, and the problem is that there’s no transparency about how those decisions are being made, and when we don’t get to see how and why those decisions are being made, it lends to the impression that some people are getting unfair treatment and others are being left in this inefficient and harmful prosecutorial system.
WCD: You’ve worked in the past with the Washington County Justice Initiative, who has called the DAs office “bloated”, and calls for defunding the police, DAs office, and the prison system. Your opponent calls this “dangerous”, and claims reforms such as what you are suggesting have been tried in Portland, and led to an increase in crime and decrease in public safety. How would you respond to this?
BD: Yeah, my opponent calls a lot of things dangerous because that’s his one rhetorical move. It’s the same sort of, you know, Reagan era, Willie Horton fear tactics to say that crime politics needs to stay the same and we need to keep delivering more of the same or else any change is going to cause chaos and cause disorder in the streets.
The truth is, I have consistently called for allocating our government resources in a way that efficiently expands what we’re doing in public safety. Brings in all branches of government and community based organizations to help promote safety, in the streets, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes – rather than having this very narrow definition, this myopic view that Kevin Barton has, that public safety only means more police, more convictions, more people going to jail. And that’s been shown to not be true, that is the drug war that we have tried for half a century and has gotten us to where we are and has not actually solved any problems.
There is absolutely an essential role for police, to investigate and solve serious crimes and to respond to violent emergencies. There is absolutely an essential role for jails and prisons to hold the people who are too dangerous to be out amongst the rest of us, away from us. But it does not follow, while recognizing those essential roles, that the only way to achieve safety is to pour ridiculous amounts of taxpayer resources into those two end result solutions. Those are last resort solutions. We need to be dealing with things upstream. We need more treatment programs. We need more housing programs. We need crime prevention in the community that will break this endless cycle.
All the attacks are doing is distracting from #1, the failure of the current system and the failure of more of the same to deliver on what it promised and #2, the need for a greater focus on that prevention in the community and to actually expand our safety resources and promote safety.
WCD: I think when a lot of people think of the District Attorney’s office, they just think of prosecutors, and do not realize the role the DA’s office can play in helping with crime prevention or victims of crimes. Do you feel like the DA’s office in Washington County balances their responsibilities in these roles well right now, and if not, what’s your vision of the DA’s office and how it should work?
BD: The District Attorney has a duty as the chief prosecutor for the county to promote safety and to ensure that justice is done. The problem with Kevin Barton’s current approach is that he defines safety and justice too narrowly and cannot conceive of anything other than the appearance of toughness leading to more safe outcomes and longer prison sentences and more people going to jail equating to justice.
The District Attorney is the most important position in the criminal justice system. When you look at the 9000 criminal cases that come through Washington County courts every year, the District Attorney is the one who decides what crimes are going to be charged, who is going to be charged, what plea bargains they’re going to offer, what sentences they’re going to recommend. And when you have a system where well over 90% of cases result in no trial at all, but a plea bargain, and then going directly to sentencing, those decisions that the District Attorney makes are the decisions that guide the outcomes in almost every criminal case. Those decisions are the main drivers – more important than anything a police detective decides, more important than what a victim decides, more important even than what judges decide in determining what the outcomes of all these criminal cases look like. That formal role that the District Attorney plays fits into a bigger picture of collaboration with other government officials with community based organizations to hold together this network that can promote real safety in the community, and a real sense of justice and the values that we share in our community. Or, the District Attorney can be an obstructionist. It can stand in the way of making that network work, and that collaboration work, because what we’ve seen out of Kevin Barton’s approach is when the District Attorney decides we’re going to charge crimes in this particular way, we’re only going to offer these particular plea bargains, and we’re only going to recommend these particular sentences, then that insistence is something that has a tremendous amount of power to sabotage the project of expanding our prevention network in the community. That insistence, that obtuseness of just saying, no, we’re going to focus on sending as many people to jail or prison as we can, is something that turns away people from rehabilitation. Is something that prevents people from getting the help they need, and in many cases makes people worse off, makes families worse off, makes victims worse off, and makes it harder to solve the underlying problems that are leading to this endless cycle of crime.
WCD: So how would you measure success if you’re not measuring it based on prosecutions?
BD: We absolutely need to hold people accountable for crimes, but that accountability needs to look a lot more like rehabilitation. So you measure success in, how many cases did you prevent the person from recidivating? How many cases did you prevent the person from reoffending, after they went through the system? How many people did you save from going into custody? How much incarceration did you prevent? How many victims did we serve in a way that they left feeling satisfied and safe and heard and like they are on a path to healing, as opposed to how many did we use as witnesses and coerce into testifying traumatically when they didn’t want to? So those are the kind of measures that are going to actively help promote justice and safety as opposed to just counting wins in the trial courts, that honestly all too often are getting reversed at the Court of Appeals anyway because of the kind of extreme lengths that Kevin Barton’s District Attorney’s office is going to.
WCD: Your opponent has got some pretty deep pockets. Do you feel a little like an underdog?
BD: Well, I mean there’s no question he is going to out fundraise us. He is going to outspend us. He’s got the connections to the establishment. He’s got the connections to the wealthy and well connected, and folks who are invested in a status quo that favors the wealthy and well connected.
But what we’ve got on our side is people power. We have nearly 600 individual donors to this campaign, more individual donors than have ever contributed to any District Attorney campaign in the history of Washington County. In fact, about 2/3 of those are residents of Washington County, which means we have more individual donors from Washington County than Kevin Barton has total.
This is a broad coalition of people from across the community who are supporting this campaign. Of community groups like the Washington County Democrats, Pro Choice Oregon,Safety and Justice Oregon, APANO – the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and the LatinoNetwork. Unions, like Beaverton Education Association, PCUN, the Farm Workers Union, and UFCW food and commercial workers. We’ve got people, because more people want to see change. More people want to see prevention of crime rather than this old, outdated idea of cracking down on criminals somehow being the solution. And more people want a justice system that is fair and equitable and reflects their values as opposed to more of the same. Our path to victory, the way we win this race, is through engagement with the actual individuals and the people of Washington County who want to see change.
WCD: Anything else you want voters to keep in mind when they are casting their ballot for District Attorney?
BD: The criminal justice system is the most significant system in our society and our government when it comes to the historical racism and historical inequities for marginalized groups because it’s the system that has the power to take away your liberty and take away your life and use the force of the state on you. In Washington County we’ve seen the approach from the District Attorney’s office that collaborates with ICE, even under the Trump administration, collaborating with ICE whenever it thinks that the person it’s prosecuting is in the country illegally. We’ve seen a District Attorney’s office that is even led by Kevin Barton himself, who was rebuked by Oregon courts for violating constitutional rights when he struck a black person from a jury for racist reasons. These kind of tactics, this commitment to winning no matter whose rights are getting trampled, ought to be disqualifying for a District Attorney in Washington County, for a District Attorney in the most diverse county in Oregon.
If we want to have a criminal justice system that serves all people, if we want to have a District Attorney who is committed to equal justice for everybody, if we want to have a criminal justice system that recognizes that we need to be treating people with equal human dignity, regardless of who they are, regardless of the neighborhood they come from, regardless of how well connected they are, then we can’t keep having more of the same. We need to make some real changes and this election is an opportunity to do that.
Learn more about Brian Decker, Candidate for County District Attorney, at his campaign website.