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District attorneys push back as advocacy organization presses for more liberal criminal justice policies

CONTRIBUTED  - ACLU of Oregon Executive Director David RogersWith district attorney elections coming up in Washington and Marion counties, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon has knocked on more than 15,000 doors in those areas, encouraging people to support prosecutors who shun "tough on crime" policies.

But the new campaign, called They Report to You, is running into a problem: While the ACLU contends Oregonians support liberal criminal justice policies, the group concedes they often don't know much about how the system actually works. That ignorance includes the central role of district attorneys, each county's top prosecutor, who are the focus of the ACLU campaign.

"Some of what we found out is that the overwhelming majority of voters have no idea that district attorneys are elected," said David Rogers, executive director of the group. People "actually have very little sense of what it is they do."

The ACLU aims to fill that knowledge gap — and is raising hackles among prosecutors with its aggressive message. The campaign relies on a new website that links to newspaper articles highlighting racial disparities in charging, sentencing and other issues. The site offers brief videos that feature an opinionated take on the criminal justice system, for instance depicting a white, suit-wearing prosecutor taking a folder marked "evidence of innocence" and throwing it in the trash.

"Too many elected district attorneys are unwilling to change," said the voice-over. "It's time we hold them accountable."

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis calls the campaign a misleading effort aided by "out of state special interests" in both the left and the right. He noted that the ACLU announcement name-drops President Donald Trump, who has no connection to Oregon district attorneys, calling it a "sleazy tactic."

The multi-year ACLU campaign, conducted in partnership with the liberal advocacy group The Bus Project, is part of a larger national effort spearheaded by the Open Philanthropy Project, a group funded in part by Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder. The project aims to encourage liberal candidates to run for district attorney while "reducing the degree of deference that legislators and media outlets give to prosecutors' positions on criminal justice reform issues."

A similar campaign was recently unveiled in California, called Meet Your DA.

The ACLU of Oregon received $145,000 in seed money from the Open Philanthropy Project in March to support its local efforts. The campaign has hired director Daniel Lewkow, formerly a political director for Common Cause Oregon, to staff it.

Rogers said the ACLU is not directly engaging in elections, but he understands that other groups are recruiting candidates. He said a major focus of the campaign will be to highlight how the Oregon District Attorneys Association has obstructed criminal justice reforms in Salem that seek to reduce the use of prison time, increase racial profiling reporting and publicize the inner workings of grand juries that prosecutors use to charge crimes.

The association is "the primary roadblock to moving criminal justice reform at the Legislature and also at the local level," Rogers said. "We've got this powerful set of elected leaders who have been flying under the radar of the general public. So, they have high levels of job security and low levels of accountability. That's a bad combination for justice."

Clackamas District Attorney John Foote spearheaded the district attorneys' research into the justice system. He said criminal justice data shows Oregon has embraced a "middle-of-the-road approach."

"This is not the ACLU we grew up with," Foote added. "This is a political action commitee masquerading as a nonprofit."

Marquis, for his part, says recent reforms go too far in moving away from accountability for criminals, while prosecutors remain accountable. "I report to voters. I have seven times since 1994. Who does the ACLU 'report to?'" Marquis said.

Of course, even certified nonprofits can engage in voter education without crossing a line of legal propriety by getting active in partisan or candidate elections. District Attorney elections are nonpartisan by definition.

Former Multnomah County deputy prosecutor Chuck French says of the new ACLU campaign, "I think it's fine. I don't agree with their policies that they might recommend. But a lot of prosecutors are somehow suggesting that there's something unseemly about an organization running a political campaign in a democracy. They're entitled to do that."

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