Report Finds Some Increasing Racial Disparities In Multnomah County's Justice System

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Nov. 25, 2019 5:40 p.m.

While the rate of people of color in Multnomah County's criminal justice system decreased during the last five years, the rate of people of color in jail increased for all groups except Native Americans, according to a report released Monday.

The report — compiled by W. Haywood Burns Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit — examined data in 2014 and 2019. It found black and Latino adults were more likely to be held in the Multnomah County Jail while they awaited trial than white adults.


The Burns Institute said it helps local governments promote equity and reduce disparities in their criminal justice systems. The report was funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Researchers found the disparity was the most profound at the point of arrest, though they did not have access to arrest data from any law enforcement agency in the county. Instead, the report used cases reviewed and received by the Multnomah County district attorney's office to make that assertion. It found the disparity is the largest for black adults.

"Black adults in Multnomah County are 4.9 times as likely as White adults to have a case that is received and reviewed by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office," the report stated. "Black adults are 4.8 times as likely as White adults to have a case issued for prosecution, and they are 4.6 times as likely to have a case that ends in a conviction."

Latino adults in the county were 1.2 times as likely as whites to have a case sent to the DA's office, the report found.


"The footprint of the criminal justice system is shrinking, and that's a really good thing," said Abbey Stamp, executive director of the county's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. "What we're finding is individuals of color, particularly black individuals, continue to be over represented in key decision points along the justice continuum. Things like being referred to the district attorney's office for prosecution and sentencing."

The report is not the first to point out racial disparities across the criminal justice system, and the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, Bobbin Singh, said it shows continued problems.

"This updated report is profoundly disturbing and horrifying, and emphasizes that the damage and harm to communities of color are still not being taken seriously," Singh said. “What’s shocking, and to me just really disturbing about this report, is the lack of will and urgency that local stakeholders — statewide stakeholders, generally — have around trying to confront racial justice issues in this state and in Multnomah County.”

Singh said too often reports like this result in a "passive" response like listening sessions, rather than actions aimed at addressing the root of inequities in the justice system.

The Portland Police Bureau said the ongoing disparity is something the agency has been working for years to understand and address, but acknowledged it remains an issue.

"The real question is why," PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw said in a statement. "We recognize that data demonstrating over representation by race in stops, arrests, and other areas in the criminal justice system creates distrust and fear within the community. It is time we move beyond reporting out on the data and into implementation of intentional strategies in an effort to create meaningful change, when appropriate."

District Attorney Rod Underhill declined an interview request. But in a 7-page written response, he acknowledged disparities remain.

"The members of this office strive to ensure all similarly situated individuals involved in the criminal justice system are treated fairly and with dignity and respect to obtain an equitable outcome," Underhill wrote. "As District Attorney, I firmly believe we achieve that expectation every day while being aware that improvements are possible with continued training, education and examination of potential policy adjustments system wide. In order for there to be actual change, we must actually change and remain committed to that concept."

Multnomah County officials said the Burns Institute report would not be the last on the issue.