Multnomah County
District Attorney

1200 SW 1st Avenue, Suite 5200
Portland, OR 97204
503-988-3162

Multnomah County District Attorney

 
1200 SW 1st Avenue, Suite 5200
| Portland, OR 97204
| 503-988-3162
 

PPI 7.3 | Data Story: Addressing Racial Disparities in Drug Cases

Publication date: 2/9/2022

Key Points

  • Drug cases with Black defendants are referred at a rate higher than their makeup of the population.
  • There are, however, no substantive disparities in issuance rates across racial and ethnic groups.
  • MCDA continues to evaluate our practices and policies to ensure that disparities do not accumulate across decisions from issuance to the disposition of a case.

What does the data tell us?

Our recently launched Prosecutorial Performance Indicators (PPIs) dashboard examines filing decisions—among other prosecutorial decisions—by prosecutors for drug-related cases referred to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office (MCDA) by the police. Monthly statistics from January 2018 to the end of 2021 suggest that prosecutors are issuing drug-related criminal charges at approximately the same rate across White, Black, and Latino defendants (although the numbers for Asians and Native Americans are too small to draw meaningful comparisons).

Even though there are no disparities in issuance rates across racial and ethnic groups, there are marked racial differences in cases referred to MCDA for prosecution. While only 6% of Multnomah County’s population is Black, 14% of referred drug cases in 2021 had Black defendants. Compared to earlier years, this 14% percent represents a trend towards lesser disparity.

Discussion

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are a major concern for Multnomah County residents. We know this issue is complex and prosecutors do not hold all the power to eliminate these disparities. But we can do better than we have done in the past. 

The decision to file a case is the first and perhaps most consequential decision that prosecutors make when they receive the case from the police department. Research shows racial disparities exist in how the system handles many types of criminal cases but especially appear in drug offenses. 

We are not suggesting that prosecutors need to sit and wait until equal proportions of cases with different racial groups end up on their desk. Nor do we expect to make case issuance decisions based on race. However, MCDA can adopt new practices and policies to better ensure that disparities do not accumulate across decisions from issuance to the disposition of a case. Here are a few things we have done, which undoubtedly have had implications for racial equity:

  • Stopped issuing the vast majority of drug possession cases. In 2017, MCDA led the statewide effort to defelonize low-level drug possession, and in 2021, Ballot Measure 110 passed, which decriminalized such cases. 
  • Expanded diversion opportunities for individuals charged with drug crimes and led the effort to create the County’s first pre-arrest diversion program.
  • Building a Community Advisory Board to help us think outside the box when it comes to new solutions of addressing problems of crime, violence and racial disparities in case outcomes.
  • Publishing the County’s first ever public-facing prosecution dashboards, which provides real time data about case flow into the system as well as how prosecutors handle cases involving victims and defendants of different races.
  • Diversifying our workforce so that prosecutors represent all communities of Multnomah County and therefore hold closer ties with all parts of the County.
  • Established a policy committee, which is also charged with assessing the racial impact of all new policies considered by the office.