Wins In Multnomah, Wasco Counties Signal Demand For Criminal Justice Changes

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Portland, Ore. May 21, 2020 1:45 p.m.

Embattled Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley is out — again.

Nisley lost his bid for reelection Tuesday to Matthew Ellis, a local criminal defense attorney.


Related: Embattled Wasco County District Attorney Loses Reelection Bid

“There’s a big move for change, not just in the local district attorney office, but statewide,” Ellis said.

Following his victory, he said he plans to focus on prosecuting higher-level violent offenses while looking for different solutions to address lower-level crimes where the underlying cause may be addiction- or mental health-related.

“Trying to find alternative methods, instead of just arresting and putting people in jail to deal with those types of problems,” Ellis said. “It costs more to house people in a jail bed than it does to have them in treatment type programs or probation.”

In a brief statement on Facebook, Nisley thanked supporters.

“All the money from Portland swung the election here,” he wrote. “It is a sad day for Wasco County. Please recycle your lawn signs. I appreciate very much the amazing support from everyone in Wasco County.

Earlier this year, Nisley was ousted after the Oregon Department of Justice said he couldn't continue to hold elected office after being suspended from practicing law.

He was suspended for lying to state investigators about whether he improperly opened an investigation into another county official. In December 2019, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the decision to suspend Nisley.

In a 2015 complaint to the Oregon State Bar, the then Wasco County general counsel suggested Nisley’s investigation into the county official was retaliation for a rejected romance.

Nisley has denied allegations of sexual and professional misconduct.

Since his suspension, the Oregon DOJ has been running the office.

“The people of Wasco County just didn’t like that embarrassment from their public official,” Ellis said. “There was a pretty big demand for a change.”

Related: Progressive Candidate Mike Schmidt Becomes Multnomah County’s Next District Attorney

The race highlighted a shift in policies that played out in three different criminal justice races across Oregon. Not only was Nisley replaced by a local criminal defense attorney, but in Jackson County, voters rejected plans to build a new, larger jail. And in Multnomah County, Mike Schmidt — who favors repealing voter-approved mandatory minimum sentences, among other reforms — won election over Ethan Knight, a federal prosecutor.


“All of which are landslide victories that spoke decisively to voters from around the state saying, our system is too big,” said Shannon Wight, deputy director at Safety and Justice Oregon.” Prisons and jails are not the most effective public safety solutions, we need to use our tax dollars better to invest in things like addiction treatment, mental health treatment, services for survivors of crimes.”

Schmidt and Ellis spoke by phone last night, and congratulated one another on their victories.

Speaking on OPB’s "Think Out Loud" on Tuesday evening, Schmidt said he didn’t plan to come into the office and fire top staff, as other progressive DAs have done in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco. But that didn’t stop him from stating the obvious in a release to supporters.

“The message from Multnomah County voters was loud and clear: They are ready for major reform in our criminal justice system,” Schmidt said. “Tonight, we celebrate a new era for our criminal justice system. But tomorrow, the real hard work of reform begins.”

Ellis said he, too, wouldn’t walk in on day one and fire an office full of prosecutors.

“That’s an awful idea,” he said. “If people don’t want to follow my vision or my policies over there, then they’ll find other jobs and weed themselves out.”

Wins for candidates like Ellis and Schmidt fit with broader changes happening in Oregon’s criminal justice system. Last year, Oregon lawmakers narrowed how often the death penalty can apply in criminal cases. The change is expected to dramatically reduce the number of future death sentences in Oregon. Also last year, state lawmakers eased how strict sentencing guidelines under Measure 11 apply to juvenile offenders.

Still, that shift wasn’t evident everywhere in Oregon during the primary election.

In Lane County, District Attorney Patty Perlow held off a challenge from James Cleavenger, a police officer who billed himself as an “independent progressive for all.” In one respect, Cleavenger’s message of using data to inform prosecutions and alternatives to “mass incarceration” was similar to that of Schmidt and Ellis.

Related: US Supreme Court Ruling Ends Oregon's Non-unanimous Jury Convictions

Also outgoing is Clackamas County DA John Foote, who is retiring at the end of the year. He’ll be replaced by chief deputy John Wentworth, who won unopposed Tuesday evening with Foote’s support.

Foote cautioned about what seems to be a new approach to prosecutions in the state, noting that before voter-approved mandatory minimums, crime was high and victims felt unheard.

“The people that push all this stuff use a lot of platitudes about justice and stuff, but they’re really just code words for trying to give more opportunities and leniency to criminals,” Foote said.

He said Measure 11 — a suite of mandatory minimum sentences passed by voters in 1994 — and the death penalty have been approved by voters. “And now there’s a DA in Multnomah County who has aggressively advocated that he will go against those public votes,” Foote said. “He talks about them like they’re bad, but they were needed and they’ve been used responsibly.”

Not everyone agrees. Wight, with Safety and Justice Oregon as well as the ACLU of Oregon, point to wide disparities in the criminal justice system. A report last year found overall the rate of people of color in Multnomah County's criminal justice system decreased during last five years. But it also found the rate of people of color in jail increased for all groups, except Native Americans.

Even for progressive supporters who welcome changes to how Oregon handles criminal justice, they say newly elected  district attorneys need to be held accountable.

“We can’t rely on any candidate's promise,” said the ACLU of Oregon’s Interim Legal Director Kelly Simon. “For too long district attorneys in Oregon have been a roadblock to reform. We’re ready to work with any district attorney excited on changing that narrative for Oregon.”

New terms begin next year.

Depending on what happens with litigation surrounding Nisley’s suspension, he could serve out the rest of his term, or it’s possible Gov. Kate Brown could appoint Ellis, or another attorney, to oversee the Wasco County DA seat until January. Brown’s office didn’t immediately return a request for comment.