Justice System

Mike Schmidt Doesn’t Want to Be the Next Chesa Boudin

But after a rocky first half to his tenure, the Multnomah County DA has a lot of ground to make up.

By Julia Silverman Photography by Thomas Teal December 8, 2022 Published in the December 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Last spring, when San Francisco’s reform-minded prosecutor Chesa Boudin was trying to hold onto his job in the face of a viciously fought recall campaign, his Portland counterpart, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, hit send on a mass email.

“If we’re going to keep our criminal justice reform movement going strong, Chesa needs your help,” Schmidt wrote to the network of donors that had helped propel him to victory in May 2020, when he won his race with support from a resounding 77 percent of voters. “Will you split a donation between our two campaigns to help us defeat the recall effort in San Francisco? This is a test for our national movement to end mass incarceration. They are coming for Chesa Boudin. And they’re coming for me.”

The San Francisco voters, uneasy over a highly publicized crime wave and swayed by a disciplined $7 million pro-recall campaign, did indeed come for Boudin, ousting him in June 2022 with 55 percent of the vote.

Are they coming for Schmidt next? The jury’s still out.

 

Schmidt, 41, is midway through a tenure that began early and abruptly, when his predecessor resigned unexpectedly during Portland’s summer of full-throated social justice protests. Gov. Kate Brown phoned to ask Schmidt, who was elected in the May primary for a term that was supposed to begin in January 2021, to please start his new job a little early. Nearly two-and-a-half years later, the front entry to the gleaming new Multnomah County Justice Center at the foot of the Hawthorne Bridge, which houses his office, is still boarded up, a daily reminder of a divided city.  

Inside—from a corner office where a framed New York Times profile of Schmidt is on prominent display, along with photos of him with President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and a plaque featuring crooner John Legend’s out-of-the-blue Twitter endorsement of his candidacy from 2020—the job has all the hallmarks of an endless game of Whack-a-Mole. New issues keep cropping up: here, the Oregon State Hospital releases more than 100 severely mentally ill patients awaiting felony trials earlier than expected, on orders of a federal judge; there, a man released after a local anti-cash-bail network posted his bail is accused of murdering his wife a week later; everywhere, another longtime prosecutor has left the DA’s office, quietly or otherwise. 

Amid the mayhem, Schmidt would like you—all the voters, really—to know that he hasn’t forgotten about his campaign promise to fight for systemic reforms to the justice system, driven by cold, hard numbers.

“If you actually truly care about public safety—which is what we all say we care about—then you have to ask, ‘Is the intervention that I’m advocating for the one that is most likely to cut down on future crime?’” he asks during an interview at his office. “This soft-on-crime, hard-on-crime narrative, it leads people to thinking that one will get you results, and one won’t. And it’s just completely inconsistent with everything we know.”

So far, his tenure in office has been pockmarked by upheaval and instability, plenty of it—though not all—beyond his direct control. 

A wave of gun violence swept across the metro area, hitting hardest at poorer, historically marginalized communities. Oregon’s prolonged closure of the courts during the first year of the pandemic led to a massive backlog in processing cases through the judicial system, some of them now bumping against the statute of limitations. An average of 25 or 30 criminal trials per week in Multnomah County prepandemic dropped to 8.3 as of August 2022. There’s a bottleneck of proceedings that need to be scheduled, and individual cases are taking longer to slog through as witnesses and victims alike struggle to piece together their memories of years-old violations. 

Meanwhile, the state’s underfunded, understaffed public defender system is going through an epic meltdown, leaving more than 1,000 people at any given time without legal representation, resulting in more cases being dismissed before they can be prosecuted. Brown, who is on her way out the door, has flooded DAs across the state with a time-consuming wave of sentence reductions and pardons that need processing. And on and on.

Internally, and within the larger criminal justice system, Schmidt has faced dissension. There has been a pronounced turnover of lawyers in the DA’s office, some of whom have gone public with detailed concerns about his leadership. And while he says he gets on well with top brass at the city police department and the county sheriff’s office, many rank-and-file law enforcement officers seem to hate his guts. (In the most extreme instance, his home address was publicly leaked, allegedly via an internal law enforcement system that can only be accessed from a patrol car.)

It’s a dynamic bred from the first major decision he made upon taking office—not to bring charges against hundreds of social justice–minded protesters who’d faced off against police in the streets for more than 100 days after George Floyd’s murder. (For the
record, when Schmidt ticks off his biggest regrets of his first term, this faltering relationship with law enforcement tops the list.)

Now, with his reelection looming in 2024, he is trying to change the narrative. 

To do that, he'll need to break through the daily fugue of dispiriting news about property crimes and drug violence and shootings. His sights are set on sentencing reform, including a willingness to revisit past sentences, particularly if those convicted can demonstrate evidence of turning their lives around. His office is also pressing for more humane treatment of undocumented immigrants who run afoul of the law, diversion courts that focus on treatment instead of prison for those who struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues, and an emphasis on restorative justice instead of the bring-down-the-hammer alternative, particularly for nonviolent offenders.

The United States locks up more people, per capita, than any other nation: about 1.9 million total currently, per the Prison Policy Initiative, and about 24,000 in Oregon. And yet, data from the US Department of Justice shows that 68 percent of parolees are arrested for a new crime within three years. 

“He understands that we’re not going to solve problems in the community by just putting people in jail or prison and racking up their fines and fees and taking them away from their community,” says Aliza Kaplan, a Lewis & Clark law professor who oversees the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at the school. “Obviously, when someone’s committed a very serious crime, that’s different. But in general, we can’t arrest and imprison our way out of the problems we have in this community.” 

 

Born in upstate New York, Schmidt was the student body president at Vassar College before moving to New Orleans for Teach for America in 2003, spending two years in an inner-city, predominantly Black school. That’s where he acquired an abiding interest in the New Orleans Saints—he and his wife have matching tattoos of their fleur-de-lis symbol. He left for Portland and Lewis & Clark Law School just weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit, drawn by the school’s well-regarded environmental law program. At a job fair, though, it was the Multnomah County DA’s office that showed the most interest in him and his self-described solid-but-not-spectacular grades, so he took a summer internship there and then joined the staff as a deputy DA. 

Schmidt spent a little over six years there before jumping to the wonky, policy-setting Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. The most serious cases he prosecuted were robberies, burglaries, and one deadly car accident. It was while working in Salem, as legal counsel to the Oregon Legislature and then at the Criminal Justice Commission, that Schmidt’s Silicon Valley–level love affair with the power of data fully flowered. The numbers don’t lie: jails and prisons cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year and a disproportionate number of those incarcerated in Oregon are Black or Hispanic or Indigenous, and poor. 

Spend any amount of time with Schmidt at all, and he’ll invariably steer the conversation to the eye-watering number of dashboards his staff maintains to publicly track everything from the demographics of the office to how many cases of those referred it actually prosecutes. 

Not everyone is so enamored of this approach, particularly front-line law enforcement officers who say they are stretched so thin, staffing-wise, that they can no longer respond to many quotidian, nonviolent complaints, from bike thefts to graffiti.

“Any time a big government agency puts out a dashboard, I think that’s a way to divert from what you’re actually not doing,” says Matt Ferguson, who leads the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Special Investigations Unit and is the vice president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. He’s a registered Democrat but not much of a Schmidt fan. 

And right there, two years into his term, you get to the heart of DA Schmidt’s problem. There’s a lot of talk—from the right as expected, from the center, vexingly for him, and even from allies on the left—about what he’s not doing, and comparatively little about anything else. Dashboards are all very well, but they don’t typically win hearts and minds.

“What’s crippling our community is gun violence, drug abuse, and homelessness, in that order, and those cases are not getting prosecuted,” Ferguson says. (Ferguson is quick to add that he knows that being homeless is not a crime, and it’s not the county DA’s responsibility to build affordable housing or expand shelter beds. He and Schmidt diverge, though, when it comes to Oregon’s Ballot Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of low levels of hard drugs. Schmidt supports the measure; Ferguson says it’s an unmitigated disaster, citing the promised expansion of addiction treatment programs that’s barely materialized, and the lack of consequences for those who decline to seek help for substance abuse.)

Kaplan, by contrast, has plenty of praise for Schmidt’s intentions, and for his openness to new initiatives. She sees his election as long overdue in progressive Multnomah County—DAs in Chicago and Philadelphia and other blue cities have lapped us on criminal justice for years. But even she faults Schmidt on execution. For example, she’d like him to move faster on one of his centerpiece initiatives: the new Justice Integrity Unit, which is charged with reviewing past cases where there might have been excessive sentencing, racial bias, or decisions made by nonunanimous juries. Others would like him to pump the brakes: “Your job isn't to destroy the system. Your job is to enforce the law,” says Billy Williams, the former US Attorney for Oregon. 

Such reviews can lead to pardons, commutation, and expungements, but it is a delicate process, undoing the work of your colleagues past and present. After a false start when a veteran Black defense attorney hired to oversee the effort stepped down within weeks (the Oregonian reported that he’d dozed off during a meeting with national counterparts and given female staffers unsolicited advice on how to dress in court), Schmidt put longtime prosecutor Kelley Rhoades in charge of the effort, along with two other attorneys. Kaplan says she’d prefer an even more robust staff that includes more attorneys of color and people with criminal defense backgrounds.

“I definitely think they are moving too slowly,” she says. “All of this hope is out there.”

 

Image: Thomas Teal

Schmidt—a diplomat who would very much like to be reelected—says his job is a tightrope between those who want him to move fast and break everything and those who want a return to old-school law and order. His defenders are tarter and more pointed.

Aaron Knott, a longtime colleague who now serves as Schmidt’s policy director after moving over from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office, says the DA’s office gets dinged for how many cases they do and don’t prosecute, but the real issue is how many cases are brought to them by a police force—understaffed as it may be—that isn’t particularly invested in seeing Schmidt get reelected.

“Let’s say someone breaks into 28 Tigers tonight, right?” Knott asks rhetorically during an interview outside the modern Asian restaurant just off of SE Holgate. “If we get that referral to the DA’s office, there’s a 70 percent chance we’ll prosecute. The remaining 30 percent is things like, the victim doesn’t want to prosecute, or we don’t have good evidence, or there’s a legal impediment. So, our close rate is 70 percent. Portland police’s is 10 percent.”

Ferguson, unsurprisingly, has a counternarrative: “People call and say, like, ‘Hey, my car has been stolen,’ or ‘I think these guys are dealing drugs,’ or ‘I found this guy passed out in our yard.’ And it usually always stems from drug abuse. So we’ll do an investigation, we arrest those people, we send them to jail. And the case gets dismissed, because there isn’t an attorney, or they chose not to prosecute because they have other cases that are taking precedent. And that person gets released and they come right back to the neighborhood. So we have to start over again.”

Against a constant drumbeat of bad news, Schmidt is making progress on some of the reform-minded ideals that he ran on, aided by a progressive-leaning Multnomah County Board of Commissioners that has been willing to underwrite pilot projects aimed at reducing mass incarceration.

There’s the county’s new STEP court program, an $850,000 set-aside for those facing violent felony charges who struggle with mental health and addiction issues, allowing them to enroll in supervised treatment programs as a prison alternative. Of the 45 people who have gone through the year-old program so far, none have been reoffenders, Schmidt’s office says. (His predecessors championed similar successful programs, but aimed at those charged with less serious crimes.)

The Criminal Justice Commission, Schmidt’s former employer, also earmarked a $1 million grant to start up a new restorative justice pilot project, to allow both victims and alleged perpetrators to meet with a trained facilitator instead of going through the legal system. The program, which aims to serve 25 cases in its first year, is directed at getting those between the ages of 18 and 30 who’ve committed serious felonies to look their victims in the eye and take meaningful responsibility for their actions. 

“They get to ask those questions that they can’t ask in the criminal justice system,” says Adrienne Anderson, the deputy district attorney heading up the program for the DA’s office. “They get to ask, ‘Why me?’ What’s going in this person’s life that led up to what happened? And the person who caused the harm has to answer those questions.”

Schmidt also touts what he calls his signature accomplishment of the 2021 legislative session: the passage of Senate Bill 819, which allows people who have previously been convicted of crimes to petition a circuit court judge for resentencing or expungement if their local DA’s office agrees. If it works the way Schmidt hopes it will, the end result will be to build back some trust with communities of color that have been hollowed out by high rates of incarceration over the years. 

“I woke up one day, and that attempted murder wasn’t there anymore,” says Terrence Hayes, who spent 13 years in prison for the crime before becoming the first person in Multnomah County to have his conviction vacated under SB 819. He now works as an electrician and also runs a nonprofit that aims to help people transition out of prison; he and his wife recently bought their first home. “I had assumed that there was no care for my community, that folks that had the authority and the power to affect things only thought it was good, it was safe, if they threw us away.” 

This fall, Schmidt’s office rolled out a new internal policy aimed at how lawyers in his office should handle undocumented immigrants who are accused of committing low-level crimes, with an eye toward helping them avoid deportation. He’s been working with the Bureau of Labor and Industries on how BOLI investigators can better help identify cases of potential wage theft for prosecution. And when the legislature reconvenes in January, Schmidt’s office plans to push for legislation that would require the state Department of Justice to investigate any officer-involved shootings, taking the responsibility—and any appearance of impropriety—from local DAs’ offices that have to partner with police forces day in and day out.

“Notwithstanding all of the multiple crises that have been happening at the same time, these [initiatives are] why I ran,” he says. “A year’s worth of work is finally coming to fruition.”

 But on the hot-button topic of charges against the police, Schmidt seems damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He faced internal criticism when he hired outside counsel, at a cool $300 an hour, to put the case of a Gresham police officer—who’d shot and killed a man within seconds of arriving at a crime scene—before a grand jury, even though the prosecutor originally assigned to the case didn’t think it was worth pressing charges. (“I wanted to make sure that the community was assured that we were presenting the case straight down the middle, not putting our thumbs on the scale in any way,” says Schmidt, of the decision to bring in outside counsel.) The grand jury dismissed the case, agreeing with the staff lawyer’s original instinct, and no charges were brought. 

On the flip side, social justice advocates howled when he chose not to press charges in September against an officer who’d been recorded appearing to shove a protester to the ground two years before. (An independent investigator hired to evaluate the case on its merits concluded that the officer’s actions were not criminal, Schmidt’s office says.) 

Another blow: 23 departures from his office and counting. At least three former lawyers say that some of the new hires who’ve replaced those who left are inexperienced and it shows in court. 

The in-house deputy DAs’ union had endorsed Schmidt’s more by-the-book opponent in 2020 and while some of those who’ve left did so out of burnout, a few departed in burn-it-down fashion. (Consider this from victim’s advocate Vanessa Palacios in her resignation letter: “Your office is falling apart, and the victims along with it; all under your watch. Everyone in this office shows up each day to fight for victims, everyone but you. You have let defense attorneys run this courthouse, and now our office.”) 

“Schmidt came in with good ideas,” says a lawyer who departed earlier this year, has not previously spoken about the decision, and requested anonymity because of concerns about future employment. “He has been a giant disappointment.”

In the view of at least three lawyers who’ve left his employ, Schmidt talked a good game about reform but left the previous senior management—“the old-fashioned, red-meat prosecutors”—in place. As a result, they say, murders are overcharged, all the better to prevent a grieving family member showing up in a 2024 campaign ad for a Schmidt opponent. 

Schmidt points out that—check his dashboard!—departures might be higher-profile, but percentage-wise they are in line with what they were under his predecessors. Even with the departures, staffing levels are at their highest in years thanks to targeted investments from the county, and his office has made an effort to bring in some new hires with experience in other jurisdictions. 

His record on promoting women to the highest supervisory levels in his office is cloudier. When Amber Kinney, a deputy district attorney, left last February, she penned a furious, seven-page letter to Schmidt dressing him down for his treatment of women. “Under your leadership, seven consecutive men were promoted or hired into leadership positions. Under your leadership (or in anticipation of your leadership) eight high-level career lawyers have left our office. Seven of the eight are women.” Since then, three more people have left, including one more woman.

Almost all of his senior prosecutors are male; unlike some of his colleagues in the judicial reform movement nationwide, he chose not to clean house upon taking office. His first assistant, attorney Jeff Howes, served the exact same role under the previous two Multnomah County DAs, and chief deputy Don Rees was promoted to the position in 2013. Both are white men. Schmidt did promote senior deputy district attorney Glen Banfield, the first Black man to rise to that position in the history of the office, and he has promoted five women lawyers to senior deputy positions: Rhoades, Melissa Marerro, Mariel Mota, Nicole Hermann, and Kate Molina. 

 

Two years in, the job has taken a toll. Schmidt’s a beer guy, but he’s trying to drink more green juice these days, leaving his quest to fill out his McMenamins passport dragging. He’s got no time for the gym, and the online commentators have taken notice (though it must be said, he still has the hair of a Love Island contestant). 

During the pandemic, his young children were always underfoot; his eldest, who started kindergarten this year, is old enough now to understand that people might sometimes show up at their house who don’t like his father. More than once, his wife and kids have gone to stay elsewhere for a few days following threats. 

He says he doesn’t want to run for higher office. He does, however, plan to run in 2024 to keep his job, which pays $243,519 annually. There was an element of luck in not being up for reelection in 2022—the electorate is restless—and a good-on-paper “tough on crime” opponent could resonate even in hyperliberal Portland in a way that would not have been true in 2020. And sources say groups like the business-backed People for Portland, which has pressed for quicker action from elected leaders on curbing the sprawl of homeless encampments, have been calling around town to sound out potential opponents for Schmidt. 

The results of this November’s city council and county commission races pitting true-believer progressive candidates against more moderate ones will be predictive for Schmidt; in the meantime, his office is moving forward with a plan that could potentially blunt internal opposition by asking legislators to add DAs to the list of government employees who, because of the potential dangers they might encounter on the job, are able to retire early with full PERS benefits—a longtime goal of DA unions. (This privilege is already granted not only to police and fire employees but also to wildlife and liquor control commission inspectors, neither of whom are expected to show up at middle-of-the-night homicide scenes.)

If Donald Trump—who famously deemed Schmidt “that radical-left district attorney in Portland” during the 2020 protests—should somehow find a way out of his multiplying legal troubles and onto the 2024 ballot, anger-fueled voter turnout could work in Schmidt’s favor, under a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle. 

Schmidt says he’s trying to remain clear-eyed about what lies ahead and who is lying in wait. He’s aware that the start of his term has tracked uncomfortably close to the most backhanded of proverbs: “May you live in interesting times.” From Boudin’s recall, he says, he has drawn some key lessons that he hopes will help him avoid a similar fate.

“I have to connect and understand that when people don’t feel safe, that’s real,” he says. “And we have to do everything we can to make people feel safe. You know, when I started this job I was talking to another district attorney, and I was talking about some of the tough decisions I was facing in the moment. And she said to me, ‘Mike, you’ll understand this soon: the only decisions that you have to make are choices between bad decisions.’” 


Law & Order

A by-the-numbers look at crime stats and prosecution in Portland

DA Mike Schmidt’s enemies and allies alike agree on one point: the man loves him some data. Accordingly, his office runs what is perhaps the best-populated dashboard this side of the Oregon Health Authority, a thicket of numbers on everything from staff retention rates to victim-support outreach to case-dismissal patterns broken down by racial and ethnic identities and zip codes. It can be dizzying to dive into, so we’re highlighting some of the key need-to-know stats from a roller-coaster tenure.

 

On staff retention:

13 Lawyers who left Schmidt’s office during the first nine months of 2022, seven of whom were women 

11 Lawyers who left the Multnomah County DA’s office in all of 2019 under predecessor Rod Underhill, five of whom were women


 

On caseloads:

38 Average number of open felony cases per prosecutor, January 2019 

98 Average number of open felony cases per prosecutor, September 2022 

525 Open misdemeanor cases, January 2019 

795 Open misdemeanor cases, September 2022


 

On firearms: 

102 Gun violence cases prosecuted in Multnomah County in 2019 

161 Gun violence cases prosecuted in Multnomah County in the first nine months of 2022


On incarceration rates:* 

273 People sentenced to jail or prison in summer 2019, about 34 percent of whom were put away for misdemeanors

121 People sentenced to jail or prison in summer 2022, about 16 percent of whom were put away for misdemeanors


On case referrals:

1,773 Cases referred in September 2019 by law enforcement to the district attorney’s office 

899 Cases referred in September 2022 by law enforcement to the district attorney’s office

*Schmidt’s stated goal: “To end an overreliance on incarceration for nonserious offenders.”

 

Editor's note: This article has been updated from the print version published in the Winter 2022–2023 issue of Portland Monthly to correct the length of Don Rees's tenure and remove an erroneous reference to the location of attorney offices. Portland Monthly regrets the errors.

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