Michael Schrunk has been the district attorney in Multnomah County, Oregon, for over 25 years, and has been the leader in several innovative justice initiatives. He launched Portland’s community prosecution program in 1990 and helped to open Portland’s first community court in 1998. In February 2007 he spoke with Center for Court Innovation staff about his experiences with both.
Could you talk a little bit about how community prosecution evolved in Portland?
Here’s the thumbnail sketch. Portland was going through a redevelopment phase on the east side of the river. It was an under utilized area, but it was also a high crime area for street robberies, prostitution, dumping, and car thefts. A group of people got together and formed a safety action committee and the next thing I knew I was attending meetings weekly and then several times a week. Eventually I tasked a senior deputy with attending these meetings in my stead, and the people who were banding together in this geographic area asked if they could have a lawyer who would be there all the time.
At that time I didn’t have any money to do it. The precinct commander—who later became the police chief—and I talked to a group of these individuals and outlined how we would be able to place someone there to work with them. The big infrastructure was the business community, so we raised the money privately with contributions from businesses, and I promised to put a senior person there. We were able to get together office space and file cabinets, hire a secretary, and put in our first community prosecutor. And that area blossomed. Paul Allen came down and built what’s now called the Rose Garden, home of the Trailblazers. Portland built a convention center. Businesses boomed. It became what we call a BID, or business improvement district.
When I started down this path, I said that if it worked in an area dominated by business then I would try and get funding for a community prosecutor in a residential area. And so that was just a kind of next step. I put a prosecutor in a residential area, and the program was wildly successful though the infrastructure was different, consisting of the church, the schools, the small business owners and the homeowners. The area had a whole different set of problems, and different concerns, but the crimes were still all quality-of-life crimes.
Ultimately the program mushroomed until we had nine community prosecutors throughout the county.
And how did the community court come about?
One of the things we heard continually from our community prosecutors was that judges don’t pay attention to quality-of-life crimes. And that’s understandable. Judges are overworked. They can have up to 150 people on their docket during the day. The quality-of-life crimes are just too far down on the list. We tried everything from busing people from the neighborhood associations in to sit in the back of the courtroom to writing letters to the court to try to put evidence on that these crimes really depreciate the quality of life in the neighborhood.
Eventually we got the idea to open a community court to deal with these crimes. Seeing what was going on in Midtown Manhattan in New York City made us realize that while we couldn’t replicate a Midtown Community Court in Portland, we could maybe do it one or two days a week in different areas. So I put together a group and we had a lot of buy in from neighborhoods, and we started slowly building a neighborhood advisory board. Then the public defender and I walked the courthouse walls to recruit a judge. I learned early on that if you want something done it’s better to try and bring everyone in at the front end, and you get less surprises once you kick it off. And we relied a lot on the Center for Court Innovation and the Midtown folk.
In 1998 we started a community court at a community center next to a grade school, and then we put one out in another area called Brentwood Darlington and ran dockets in a community center there. And then we put one out in the Eastern end of the county in an area called Gresham, a city of about 100,000 adjacent to Portland. We ended up with four altogether. Then Oregon went through some really bad financial times and two of the courts had to close. So we’re down to two community courts but we hope to reopen the others. I can’t tell you when, but we’ve got the critical mass to do it, and we’re limping along and being successful.
The courts have been overwhelmingly accepted by the public, by the police, by the defense bar. They’re a way to handle quality-of-life crimes, and we run work crews, return something to the community along the restorative justice model. We’ve done everything from removing graffiti to landscaping, cleaning city parks, and working in local nonprofits. It’s been a success. It’s well received by all. Do we have repeaters? Yeah, we do. Because they’ve been through community court they don’t always walk the straight and narrow, but we’ve been able to preserve in the community the sense that there’s a consequence for criminal activity. We’ve put a new face on the justice system. We’ve found that the people that cycle through or that get hauled into community court are a very needy population, so the courts have turned into good places for social outreach. We link people to the whole gamut of social services. Not everyone ought to go to community court; everyone understands that. But the courts allow the rule of law I really believe in: that there’s a consequence to criminal activity.
Given the budget cuts you’ve faced, how you’ve been able to sustain the community courts you do have?
Gound support, arm twisting on the budget people. I’ve always contended if you do a good job and you can quantify what you do in the results, you can somehow get support. But quantifying results is difficult and I really think that’s something the Center for Court Innovation can help on. For a while, there was a big push in Washington to get community prosecution funded around the country, and one of the questions that always came up is what kinds of results can community prosecution get and what are the cost benefits of community prosecution. It’s all well and good when you go to a funding source and bring in a satisfied customer. Everyone can get a heart-tugging tale or a cute story, but what you really need are good hard evidence-based statistics. You’ve got to get the story but you’ve got to get the data behind it—for your city councils, county commissions, state legislators. If I had to say what is going to keep community prosecution and community court going, it’s that. Because political winds change. You’re liable to get a district attorney who says, “Hey, we want the death penalty for everything, that’s the only way to stop crime.” Or courts saying, “We don’t like the social work justice and by God we’re going to lock them up and hope the sheriff or jail commissioner can hold them. That’s his problem, not mine.” What we need is to get the data and we need to ask the questions of the bright young men and women that can analyze this data.
Can you talk about the relevance of community prosecution going forward?
Well, the goal is to get ahead of the curve, to take a look at what is causing the drug dealing in the park or the theft from the shopping centers or the home break-ins, etc. It’s getting people at the table to talk about how this affects us, how this affects you, how can we work together. We want to get ahead of crime before the police or SWAT teams have to come in to arrest people, before you get a knifing or a shooting or drug dealing taking over a park. And to that end we’ve done some crazy things, like working with the park bureau to figure out when and where the drug dealing was dominant in the park and to change the watering schedule for those areas. Little things like that can make a huge difference.
In another example, we found out that one of the business areas with high crime rates didn’t have enough sworn police officers patrolling it. We had, I think, two police officers that were responsible for that area, but then we found out that there were something like 18 different private security individual companies that contracted with different clients in that area to do private security work. All it took was us deputy D.A.’s training these private security people in what are the elements of a crime and then getting them together and getting them something as simple as a Radio Shack set-up on a wireless so they could share information. So all of a sudden, where we once had these two policemen we now have the equivalent of 20 or 30 officers, and we’ve seen crime dramatically go down.
We’ve been able to do some good things in crime prevention, and also take off some serious criminals when necessary. With most of the crimes—the property crimes, the quality-of-life crimes—people just don’t want them to happen. They don’t necessarily want the offenders shot or locked up forever, they just don’t want the crime to happen anymore. They want to go on and conduct their business. They don’t want to have to move into a gated neighborhood. The neighborhood businesses don’t want to have to move into a strip mall. That tears apart the fabric and livability of a residential and a business community. It makes you close downtown and move to an outlying shopping center. Most people have seen it. We certainly have here. But our goal is to keep the community together.
With increases in crime in some areas of the country, some wonder about the relevance of community prosecution to more serious issues.
I think early warning, early identification. I always say I don’t put a brand-new lawyer out in the community. I want someone who understands what the felony system’s about and how a grand jury works, someone who has built up relationships in the office. In other words, someone who can make lightning strike. If you can identify someone who is a problem, rather than jump through a lot of feel-good do-good hoops you can identify that person early, come down and get an indictment, and have the person mainstreamed.
We have a lot of people come visit us wanting to talk about community courts and community prosecution and some of the other progressive stuff we’ve been able to do. And I tell them okay, but TCB. Take care of business. You’ve got to prosecute the murders, rapes, and armed robberies, and you’ve got to do them successfully, because if you start letting those slide or they get out of hand it’s going to depreciate everything else. You need to work things in a holistic manner. If you start with the quality-of-life crimes but you always take care of the hard crimes, things are going to work out. So when crimes spike or there are different crimes in different areas, you can deploy resources where needed.
Do you have any advice for other practitioners looking to start community justice programs?
Don’t be too prideful. Don’t be ashamed to copy what someone else is doing. Take it and dissect it and take the best parts and build your own model. Because each community’s different, each neighborhood’s different. I think prosecutors and courts have the ability to lead the way and there’s a lot of room within following the rule of law to solve problems. And these approaches are just a heck of a lot better than having armed camps in the street.