For the first time in nearly 40 years, the district attorney’s office in Marion County is being contested. Incumbent District Attorney Paige Clarkson is facing a challenge from Spencer Todd, a 33-year-old public defender from Salem. Clarkson has been the county’s top law enforcement official for four years and has blamed state leaders, including the governor, of undermining public safety by pursuing criminal justice reforms. Spencer Todd has worked as a public defender in Marion County for eight years and supports criminal justice reforms that focus on mental health services and treatment for nonviolent emergencies and offenses.
Clarkson and Todd join us to share their perspectives on criminal justice, policing and public safety.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: For the first time in nearly 40 years, the race for Marion County district attorney is being contested. Incumbent D.A. Paige Clarkson is facing a challenge from public defender Spencer Todd. Clarkson has been the county’s top prosecutor for four years and has blamed state leaders including the governor for undermining public safety. Spencer Todd has worked as a public defender in Marion County for eight years and supports criminal justice reforms that focus on mental health services and treatment for non-violent offenses. I want to start by giving each of you a chance to briefly share your overall philosophy for how a district attorney’s office should operate. We chose randomly before the show and Spencer Todd, you can go first.
Spencer Todd: Sure, thank you kindly. I think that we need to do a couple of things differently than we currently do them. And as a preface I do, by the way, believe that we need to fund the police and that we need to hold violent offenders accountable and that often prison sentences are the right result for those crimes. But when I talk about reforms and when I talk about mental health treatment and when I talk about trying to resolve cases in a way that makes us all safer, I’m talking partially about holding the serious stuff accountable.
But I’m also talking about doing a better job at preventing crime, which means addressing directly the causes of crime, which are poverty, which are inequality, which are unfairness, which are a lack of integrity from the leadership of that office. And so that’s my kind of overall vision. The way I want to get that done is with hard work myself. I want to do the job firsthand, boots on the ground, in court, doing cases, doing small cases, doing big cases, doing whatever it takes, keeping my employees happy and believing that this is the right thing. And that’s what I’m about.
Miller: Paige Larson, your overall philosophy for how to run a district attorney’s office?
Paige Larson: I was listening to the earlier part of your show and you were talking a lot about bridges and infrastructure and the things that really are the foundation of our communities and the success of those communities. And law enforcement and public safety is really the very basis of everything that we do in our communities. If we don’t feel safe and we don’t feel like we can safely go to school, raise our families, have a job, own a business and live in a community then the rest of it doesn’t matter. It’s really the very basic infrastructure of our community. And as a prosecutor who has done this work for, now, over two decades, I’ve been re-elected for four years but I’ve been a prosecutor in Marion County my entire career, which stands, now, over two decades. And I really understand what it takes to keep a community safe, to keep Marion County on the right track, to keep us from really dangerous or extreme policies that have the ability to chip away at that very sound infrastructure.
So my philosophy is really making sure that we remain safe and that we do so based on sound public safety response. The district attorney’s job, my job, is about accountability and holding people accountable for the crimes that they commit in our community. And while we have lots of programs in Marion County that focus on the genesis of crime and the roots of crime that my opponent likes to talk about, at the end of the day, my job is to hold people accountable. And my over two decades of experience is really tried and trusted in that regard.
Miller: So let’s dig into what you said and we’ll do the same with Paige Clarkson as well. But what specific changes would you bring to the office in terms of prosecutorial discretion? You said you don’t support defunding the police, you do support sending people who’ve committed serious crimes to prison. So what wouldn’t you do that you say Paige Clarkson would do?
Todd: Well there’s a bunch of um kind of nitty gritty into the weeds stuff, you know. One thing that I think makes us safer that gets everybody where we want to go is reforming the Brady list to do a better job of giving law enforcement an expanded process but also creating a transparency and an element in which we can hold everyone accountable.
Miller: Wait. This is when police officers have been found to have lied and then they can’t be then included as witnesses for a trial. Have I gotten that wrong?
Todd: You are correct.
Miller: Okay. So you want to reform the way that list is put together or used in Marion County?
Todd: Yes. Both. I think that the process right now is that my opponent just decides. And I think that we need to add some level of process to give law enforcement an opportunity to kind of explain what happened. And then I also think we need to add a tier between ‘you lose your job, you can’t testify and nothing’- a tier for misconduct that might not rise to the level of “terrible” but isn’t what we want our officers doing, so that we can have transparency and accountability without, you know, punishing law enforcement without a process.
Miller: So that’s one example. What about prosecutorial discretion and how you would decide because it sounds like you were saying, at the beginning, that you would make different choices, in terms of the prosecuting decisions as the D.A. So what’s an example you can point to?
Todd: Sure, well two things are done right now that we need to do a lot less of. One is requiring stipulated sentences with a threat. So the way it works right now, if you’re charged with a crime in Marion County, a lot of times you’ll get an offer that says ‘take exactly this deal or else we are going to go to grand jury and seek more serious charges and try to send you to prison’. And you know, that process kind of creates a real kind of terrible choice for a defendant in that situation. So we need to do that.
I also think that the way that we approach conversations with the victim of crime can help us kind of better dictate our prosecutions, focusing on what makes the victim whole and addresses their trauma first and foremost, instead of just ‘here’s the punishment, here’s what we’re doing’.
Miller: So there were three big issues there that Todd brought up just to remind folks. That questions about changing the Brady list, about not requiring stipulated sentences when dealing with defendants and then changing the way you talk to victims. I want to give you a chance to respond to all of that?
Clarkson: I really don’t blame my opponent for misstating the Brady process because he really just doesn’t know how that works. Just to be clear I was actually one of the main architects of what is currently considered statewide to be the best practices manual for the Brady process. And as you describe, that is the process to determine whether mostly a professional witness - usually law enforcement, is able to testify truthfully. And in Marion County we follow a very specific process and there is nothing more important to a prosecutor than ensuring that the witnesses that we call, especially those who are entrusted with a badge and a gun, that they do so truthfully and that they can withstand the rigors of the trial process, that our community can trust them, and that we can trust them.
Our Brady process does exactly what my opponent seems to think needs to be changed, which is, we do give any professional witness an opportunity to explain the concerns that we might have about their ferocity and their credibility. We do go through a process. At the end of the day it is my decision. It should be my decision. Because that is an extremely important job of law enforcement. But there is a process by which any individual can work through to determine whether they should be allowed to testify.
He also spoke about tiers. The tier that he describes does exist in our Brady best practices. Uh, there is a tier between ‘you can never testify and we can’t trust you as a witness’ and ‘freedom to testify in anything’. There is a tier in which we simply discover material that we know to be concerning and impactful on somebody’s veracity. So exactly what my opponent is disgusting is exactly what already occurs in Marion County and frankly across most D.A.’s offices in the state.
He talked about stipulated deals. And again, I think what’s important for listeners to understand is the most important thing that we do is accountability. And a lot of times in the criminal justice process, plea bargaining, though it has maybe a negative connotation publicly, is a necessary component of the criminal justice system. And the conversations that we have with defense and defense counsel specifically, necessarily include the defendant’s willingness to step up to the table and take early accountability for the crimes that they have committed in our community. Oftentimes if they are unwilling to take that accountability, if they’re unwilling to admit that they’ve done something wrong and therefore be held accountable for that, there are consequences to not taking accountability, namely additional charges. Grand jury may decide there are other things that they have committed that might need to be considered by a court. When someone lacks that early accountability. That is a necessary part of the criminal justice system. And I think you talked about victims.
I just want to be really clear. One of the most important divisions in my office is our Victim Assistance division. We have many dedicated full time employees as well as about 50 volunteers in our victim assistance division that focus solely on the needs of victims throughout the criminal justice process, in some cases before a crime is even committed when they are seeking things like protective orders. But all the way through trial and thereafter these folks really make me proud every day. And the way they work with victims, the way they work with survivors and the way they help them through what can be a very difficult criminal justice process.
Miller: We ask both of you to see if you can both be faster with your answers because we only have under eight minutes to go right now. Spencer Todd, one of the arguments that Paige Clarkson has made essentially is that you would make Marion County’s criminal justice system more like Multnomah County’s, which she has argued would be a bad thing. Do you agree with Multnomah County D.A. Mike Schmidt’s approach to prosecutions?
Todd: I’m really glad you asked it. I’m not Mike Schmidt by any stretch. I’ve run on this campaign with an emphasis of nonpartisanship and not seeking party endorsements, unlike my opponent. But you know, the other thing that’s going on with Portland is the, you know, misconstrued nature of prosecution. Um in fact, my opponent just sent out mailers that contain lies in them, not lies like you talked about in politics, but provable lies.
And one of those lies was that Multnomah County stopped prosecuting criminals and started prosecuting cops. It’s just wrong. And the fact that she tries to equate me turning Marion County into what Portland has going on is a dog whistle to distract from her running a campaign that’s based on facts and fundamental fairness and change. She doesn’t have anything that she wants to do, change or accomplish in the next four years. And so she has instead tried to make it about fear and Portland and that kind of thing coming south into Salem when in fact Salem’s crime rate is already up under her watch. And somehow she’s not being held on the hook for crime going up the last four years.
Miller: You, in that campaign mailer that you sent out last week, said ‘you know a man by the company he keeps. So why is he palling around with defense attorneys and convicted criminals?’ And then you listed some of the defense attorneys who have contributed to his campaign. Many of those attorneys then asked you to issue a retraction saying that you had damaged their reputations. In your mind, is there something wrong with either being a public defender or being friends with them?
Clarkson: Oh, absolutely not Dave and I regret that any public defender would have taken that mailer, that campaign mailer, in that regard. And to anyone who has reached out to me, I have personally apologized about that.
Miller: But how would they not take it in that regard if you said, what do you think about a man who’s paddling around with defense attorneys? What other way is there to take it?
Clarkson: Yeah, and I understand what you’re saying, Dave and I and I do understand how people took it that way. The concern about that mailer, it was really to point out the very different ways in which our two campaigns have been supported. One is supported financially by the individual who wants to decriminalize human trafficking in the state of Oregon. My opponent took $50,000 from that campaign. That mailer specifically points that out and was the primary focus of that mailer.
He is also primarily endorsed by the defense bar. And while I value the work that they do and they are necessary in our system of justice and how we accomplish justice, they are not appropriate people to be leading the biggest public safety office in our community. So we have a very different vision and that mailer was intended to point out how we are supported by very different people. We are supported by very different parts of our community and we have very different philosophies and visions for public safety in Marion County.
Todd: I just want to jump in real quick. Dave, I’m sorry, it’s actually decriminalization of sex work that Mr. Aaron Booneshoft wants to accomplish. And also there was a second mailer with the same language that was sent out and in mailboxes on Monday that changed from paddling around with defense attorneys to saying that my same endorsers and colleagues and friends want to defund the police, even though that is exactly the opposite of what we want.
Miller: Let me ask both of you. Did the racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd affect your thinking about both the criminal justice system broadly and the specific role that district attorneys play in the system?
Clarkson: I don’t think there is anyone that works in law enforcement that it was not affected by that entire movement. I think there’s anyone that does our job that doesn’t take a hard look at what we do every day and assess um, as sort of the end of the line in the criminal justice process, are we responding to our communities appropriately and fairly. So I think we all had to take a look at that. We all had to assess. But at the end of the day, the D. A. S job is to hold people accountable for the crimes that they commit and the offenses that occur within our communities. And it’s my job to look at those offenses and determine whether justice is served by prosecution, whether we can appropriately prosecute a particular crime.
Miller: Is there a specific way that that uprising changed the way you approach your job?
Clarkson: I think what it does is that it reminds us all that there are many different facets in our society that are responsible for inequities of all kinds - racial, cultural from whatever source. And when you work at the end of a process, it is abundantly clear to me that when something crosses my desk, when the name crosses my desk, we have failed as a community in many different facets of our society. And it is my responsibility to recognize that. Uh, and to still hold people accountable for the offenses that they might commit.
Miller: And Spencer Todd, did in the summer of 2020 and the spring before. Did they affect your thinking about how you would approach your job as district attorney?
Todd: Yes, they did. Um, and in fact, one of the three, when I knock on somebody’s door, I try to keep it to three talking points because I’m relevant, you know, aware of their time and I say, we need to rebuild the relationship between the public and the police coming from the police’s perspective and coming from the public’s perspective. And that isn’t just a downstream thing, that is something that can and needs to be done by elected officials, including the D. A. It’s not just limited to once something appears on my desk, The D.A. should be out in the community advocating for more public education, better public education, expanded mental health treatment, improved crime prevention.
Because the D.A.’s job is actually not just to hold people accountable as my opponent just said, the D.A’s constitutionally mandated job is the public safety of every single person and the protection of the rights of every single person. That is not just something that happens in the courtroom, that’s something that happens in the community and that’s something that happens across this different spectrums of our community. And we need to be better about reaching every single part of the whole and we need to be fair in doing so.
Miller: Thanks very much. Spencer Todd is a public defender based in Salem. He has worked for the last eight years in Marion County, running for district attorney. Paige Clarkson is the current Marion County DA. First appointed in 2018, then elected in 2019.
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