The Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland.

The Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Last year, Oregon began prosecuting drug-related offenses differently. Instead of charging people with felonies for possessing small amounts of hard drugs, they charged them with misdemeanors instead.

The first place to make this change was Multnomah County. Shortly after, the rest of the state followed suit. The idea was to reduce the “collateral consequences” for those convicted, so they could get their lives back on track and not repeat the same mistakes. Another aim was to reduce the racial disparity in the these kinds of drug crimes.

“Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller sat down with Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill and Michael Schmidt, the head of Oregon’s Criminal Justice Commission, which recently released data on the effects of the change.

Here are five takeaways about drug crime prosecution from that conversation.

1) Michael Schmidt says regardless of race or ethnicity, people abuse drugs at basically the same rates. 

2) Despite No. 1, rates of conviction vary greatly by race.

3) Changes to prosecution of drug-related offenses considerably reduced racial disparities among felony convictions, according to the report from the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC).

4) The state had about 5,000 felony drug convictions a year before the change. After that, the number dropped to 3,000. An additional 1,000 people were still charged with a misdemeanor that would have previously been a felony.

5) The report was funded by the state’s CJC, but no formal mechanism or funding exist for studying the effects of criminal justice reforms — and a lot of questions still need answered. For instance, what impact will this change have on recidivism rates? Will those convicted on misdemeanor rather than felony drug charges make the same use of drug court-ordered treatment?

Rod Underhill certainly hopes so. In the meantime, district attorneys from around the country have noticed these preliminary results in Oregon. Underhill’s accepted an invitation to an industry conference next month in Pennsylvania to give a presentation about Multnomah County’s experience in the context of innovation and criminal prosecution.

Listen to the full conversation with Rod Underhill and Michael Schmidt in the audio player above.