Grass Roots Advocacy in Action

by Jodi Hansen



Our home is no stranger to parties. It’s not uncommon for us to pack a crowd into our 1979, ranch-style abode to eat, drink, and share around a topic. A good time is usually had by all, and sometimes we even learn something!


Most recently, we hosted an incredibly diverse group of lawyers, nonprofit leaders, local pastors, educators, business people, and public servants to discuss criminal justice reform in our context.  Our guest of honor was the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit who “advocates for policies that make Oregon’s approach to public safety more effective and just for people convicted of crime, survivors of crime, and the families of both.”  Andy from PSJ helped the assembled group to understand the need for electing reformed-minded district attorneys and legislators if we ever hope to change a broken system that costs too much and delivers too little.



The average citizen may not know that the most powerful person in the criminal justice process is the local District Attorney.  The DA is the chief elected law enforcement officer in the county. He oversees a team of Deputy DA’s who evaluate police reports to decide which crimes will be charged, what evidence needs to be shared (or not) with the defense, and whether to offer or accept a plea bargain.  


Some DA’s are obsessed with winning and this can really cloud their judgment when it comes to considering the root causes of why a defendant committed a crime. Does this person need drug treatment or mental health care? Is incarceration the best place for this person to be rehabilitated from their rebellious ways? For many DA’s, it doesn’t matter. Getting the prized conviction and chalking up another win for the “law and order” team is how the score is kept in too many counties around our state.



Smart on Crime advocates tell us there are many ways for us to reform our justice system to be more cost effective and just plain more effective in helping our communities to address the social issues associated with public safety and community well-being.


But, when it comes to reform, the Oregon District Attorneys Association is one of the loudest voices against proposed change.  Our state representatives are often very supportive of bills that seek to move us toward a system that better serves victims and those who commit crimes, but then the DA’s show up, scare our legislators with ill-informed stories of how the sky will fall if reform legislation passes, and the process gets unnecessarily bogged down.


And, that is why we gathered in our 1979, ranch-style abode. Criminal justice reform will happen at the local level and there is nothing more local level than a house full of concerned citizens learning that we need reform-minded DA’s to move forward.   



But what stood out to me at the end of the evening was the incredible unity of opinion among those who attended.  Political and religious conservatives were breaking bread and learning alongside mainline church pastors and democratic party leaders—not exactly a typical Tuesday night in 2018 America!


One of my most religiously and politically conservative friends said it this way, “I am pretty skeptical when I hear ‘bi-partisan issue’, but this is a no brainer. Who wouldn’t want to reform this system?” 


Yes, who wouldn’t want reform when the system is so expensive and does so little to ensure public safety and community flourishing? Well, a lot of DA’s. That’s who.