Responsibly and safely managing our jail beds during COVID-19

March 26, 2020

Responsibly reducing the use of jail and prison beds continues to be a priority for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. We have worked in this area for years and have been recognized by national organizations for our responsible use of jail and prison beds; our overall length-of-stay rate for adults in custody in county jail continues to be lower than most other jurisdictions. However, we recognize that even more so now – in the interest of public health – we must carefully and expeditiously – work with our local public safety partners and others to do everything we can to protect those in custody while maintaining public safety and protecting crime victims.

Despite what many people think, the District Attorney’s Office has no outright authority or power to order the release of any individual who is in the custody of either the County Sheriff or state prison system.

Since mid-February, Multnomah County’s criminal justice system has been working in overdrive with the court, law enforcement, health officials and criminal defense bar members to take appropriate and meaningful steps to identify, and if appropriate, release any individual in custody during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since early March, in direct response to COVID-19, Multnomah County has been able to successfully and quickly lower its jail population by about 20%.

We continue to work with law enforcement to slow the overall daily booking rate of new arrestees.

The efforts described above and more thoroughly below are working, and we will continue to make more changes as appropriate to balance the needs of public safety, public health and to serve crime victims.

To that end, the District Attorney’s Office will be:

  • Continuing to support cite-in-lieu of arrest | Law enforcement throughout Multnomah County, working with our office and the courts have been given authorization to come up with department-specific cite-in-lieu policies for all non-person, non-domestic violence cases when the law enforcement officer has a positive identification of the individual. The cite-in-lieu program has already and will continue to significantly reduce the number of people being booked into jail, thereby reducing the potential of community spread of COVID-19 in the jail. There are calls to simply stop arresting and prosecuting some criminal offenses during this time. That is not a responsible or safe way to approach criminal behavior in our community. Our community should be proud of the resources provided to justice-involved individuals. Multnomah County prides itself in having numerous treatment courts and specialty courts that aim to provide treatment, resources and services and to reduce recidivism. The cite-in-lieu policy that our office supports during the COVID-19 pandemic will reduce the number of people entering the jail system during this public health emergency but it will also give our deputy district attorneys time to review the case for legal sufficiency at a later date. Law enforcement is currently citing cases out for at least 30 days. During this time, we continue to collect data and use it to inform our future decision making.

  • Supporting early release for individuals serving a jail sentence | The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office continues to work with the Multnomah County Circuit Court, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and others to identify, and when appropriate, support the early release of individuals who are older than 65, who have underlying health conditions or who have 14 days remaining on a local jail sentence. We must be responsible in our decisions to agree to support the release of people. We embrace the concept of providing a “warm hand off” for individuals and consequently support the Multnomah County Sheriff in assisting with coordination with the Multnomah County Probation Department. We must make sure what we do does not result in even more harm to either the defendant, the crime victim and their family and the community. Early release could catch a crime victim off guard, which is why the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office wants to ensure crime victims are properly notified of any release so they can prepare and take steps for safety planning, if necessary, particularly in cases of physical abuse.

  • Supporting pretrial release and motions of release | Whenever possible, reasonable, appropriate and when in the interest of public health and public safety, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office will support pretrial release for individuals who can be appropriately released, and sometimes supervised on release.  We will continue to support crime victims and our community when the release of an individual could result in further harm and when there is reasonable belief that the individual may flee the jurisdiction.

  • Supporting and encouraging expedited pretrial resolutions | The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office reaffirmed our commitment to the local defense bar that during this unprecedented time, we will be supporting and encouraging expedited pretrial resolutions that are responsible, appropriate and that support public safety and that support the defendant’s rights and well-being. Crime victims – as they always have – will be fully involved of the pretrial discussions occurring in each case, and crime victims will continue to have a meaningful role in the resolution of their cases. Deputy District Attorneys have been instructed to continue to communicate with their supervisors to ensure all pretrial resolutions meet the guidelines and expectations of the District Attorney’s Office. Specific attention will be given to those in custody.

  • Supporting video conferencing and teleconferencing court appearances | Multnomah County Circuit Court is moving rapidly to limit the number of overall court appearances that are occurring in the courthouse. Right now, essentially only statutorily required hearings are occurring. Whenever possible, appearances are being held by phone or video conferencing technology. This allows for social distancing and the protection of attorneys, the accused, sheriff’s deputies, witnesses, victims and court staff. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office continues to work with its law enforcement partners to implement the same technology in our office for grand jury proceedings.  At this point, we are conducting most grand jury testimony via video teleconferencing. This isn’t a new process for us. Our Deputy District Attorneys have used video teleconferencing before to meet the needs and to serve our victims when they are unable to come to the courthouse. We have now also extended video teleconferencing for grand jury to law enforcement. Internally, working with the court, we have relocated the physical gathering spot for grand jury to comply with social distancing recommendations, which includes keeping people six feet apart. We are incredibly grateful for the seven community members who continue to serve as grand jurors. To reduce the amount of times the grand jurors must be in the courtroom, we have suspended all non-essential grand jury proceedings. The only hearings that will be presented to a grand jury during the court’s Level III restrictions are violent crimes, where individuals are in custody or cases with extraordinary and compelling public safety interests. Those cases must be approved by a supervisor before they will be scheduled.

 

We continue to assess, and if necessary, make changes to our protocols every single day to support public health, public safety and to protect crime victims. Our work is tailored to the specific needs of Multnomah County’s public safety system and is informed by our local experts. We acknowledge and review guidance and practices from outside jurisdictions and organizations to help us safely and appropriately navigate this unprecedented time.