Multnomah County drug call: ‘You’d be shocked by the people who aren’t in custody’

By Steve Duin, The Oregonian, October 14, 2011

Drug call at the Multnomah County Courthouse is judicial triage, a claustrophobic circus, a casting call for “Jersey Shore.”

As drug addicts, heroin dealers and defendants in a slew of property crimes saunter in — and carve the occasional anti-cop acronym into the courtroom bench — DAs and public defenders square off to negotiate pleas and setovers. Given the stakes, you might expect the bargaining sessions to turn bitter as those barristers go to war over the meaning of law and order.

But no. “The decibel level is really high,” said Circuit Judge Youlee Yim You, who just concluded her three-month rotation at drug call, “but every day I’m amazed by the level of congeniality and good will.”

I don’t think it’s hard to explain. Prosecutors and defense attorneys know what we don’t: The justice system is coming apart at the seams, and they’re laboring to keep it together — to quote Mark McDonnell, the head of the DA’s drug unit — with “baling wire and duct tape.”

They know that in heroin possession cases, whether it’s an addict’s first conviction or 100th, the presumptive sentence is 10 days in jail and 18 months of probation. More often than not in Multnomah County, the addicts are “case banked” by the Department of Community Justice, meaning their probation is totally unsupervised.

“There’s no support. No one is visiting them. No one is giving them UAs (urinalysis),” Circuit Judge Michael McShane said. “And that’s been going on for five years.”

What about the drug dealers? The first four times a dealer is nailed selling five grams or less, McDonnell said, the presumptive sentence is also probation.

“We’re trying to force the low-level dealers into treatment, too,” McDonnell said. “There’s no likelihood of incarceration for those people, too. The jail beds we have to deal with this population is extremely small. And the sentencing guidelines make it impossible to send these people to prison.”

And when drug addicts turn to identity theft and other property crimes to support their habits?

“They’re coming in pleading to Burg One (first-degree burglary),” McShane said. “Everything about their behavior is related to their heroin use. We can see they’re a risk to the community. They’re telling us they’re a risk to the community. But we send them to the probation department … and they’re case-banking them.”

“Other than high-risk sex offenders and domestic violence cases, I don’t know that anyone is supervised over there,” Circuit Judge Eric Bergstrom added.

Thousands each day, estimates DCJ Director Scott Taylor, who — thanks to 12 years of budget cuts — has 119 parole and probation officers available to manage that population. Of the violators who are case-banked, Taylor estimates, 60 to 70 percent have a history of drug use.

“I think the judges are frustrated by the volume that comes through,” Taylor said. “If I had unlimited resources, we’d do more supervision. The majority of our resources go toward felonies, not misdemeanors, and we seem to get some pretty decent results.”

The circuit court judges, unfortunately, have countless reunions with the exceptions.

“We don’t have really good programs. We don’t have good supervision,” Bergstrom said. “We don’t have the ability to be flexible or creative in dealing with an ever increasing population of mentally ill, drug-addicted, horribly abused, broken people.”

At a time when Oregonians are being told the state can’t afford to house its current prison population, McShane notes, “I wonder if the public knows what is really going on in terms of the reduction of criminal filings.

“I wonder if the public knows how we’re approaching these issues, by decriminalizing heroin possession, by not supervising the mentally ill.”

Or by limiting jail time to 60 days for revocation of probation for felonies (for misdemeanors, curiously, the limit is one year).

“The Legislature has kneecapped us,” McShane said. “It’s a calculation to keep the prison population down, but it’s the population that’s the highest risk.”

“You’d be shocked,” Bergstrom added, “by the people who aren’t in custody.”

When the deputy DAs and defense attorneys review their options at drug call, there are a number of programs available for the defendants willing to seek treatment, including the 370 Project and the STOP Court drug treatment program.

But in the face of a sustained surge in heroin use — much of it, McDonnell said, by Oxycontin addicts who discover heroin is a cheaper rush — and overdoses, there are dramatic reductions in treatment centers, parole and probation officers, jail beds, DAs on the drug unit, and the prison sentences that many addicts require to complete a drug-treatment program.

The good will and good intentions at drug call only go so far.

“It’s a stressed system,” Bergstrom said, “and there doesn’t seem to be any hope in sight.”