Deschutes County’s district attorney says he will stop prosecuting certain misdemeanors if county commissioners don’t staff a dozen more positions in his office.
John Hummel held a press conference Wednesday to announce he will press Deschutes County’s three commissioners during the upcoming budget season for an additional $1.1 million to fund new staff, or else he would “significantly reduce” services offered by his office.
Hummel released a 79-page report at the press conference to bolster his case.
“The clear conclusion of the report is that the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office is significantly understaffed,” Hummel wrote in a letter accompanying his report. “Morale is low, turnover is high, work product is compromised, and our ability to keep our community safe is at risk.”
The Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office received $7.9 million in the last funding cycle and maintains 56 full-time positions.
The report was the product of a six-month investigation by Hummel’s staff and included interviews with dozens of employees and analysis of historic staffing levels at the office, he said. Hummel is requesting four prosecutors, two trial assistants, two victim advocates, one office manager and three other support personnel.
If the county budget committee doesn’t fund the positions, Hummel said he will forgo pursuing certain criminal cases in order to keep an appropriate focus on murder and other high-profile cases. Among the cases he would stop pursuing are misdemeanor driving while suspended, all Class B and C misdemeanors (except those involving domestic violence and child sex abuse), probation violations except in cases of violence against a person, and other exceptions.
Due to understaffing, Hummel said, his office has regularly experienced undesirable outcomes for important cases: Victims have not been notified of upcoming hearings, defendants have not paid victims restitution and prosecutors have struggled to do their job because of staff turnover.
The report references a recent assault case that was delayed several times as two consecutive prosecutors working the cases left the office for other opportunities.
“No one feels good about these undesirable outcomes,” the report states. “There is a significant fear that the work will continue to suffer, the staff will continue to suffer, and we will lose more staff as a result. This is not who we want to be.”
It wouldn’t be the first time an Oregon district attorney has reduced prosecution in the face of budget constrictions. District attorneys in Marion, Multnomah and Lane counties have each experimented with it.
“The (Oregon District Attorneys Association) is not going to comment,” said Tim Colahan, a former Harney County district attorney and staff member for the association.
Oregon prosecutors are not alone seeking more resources in criminal justice.
The Deschutes County court administrator recently asked the state for an eighth judge to deal with limited resources and growing caseloads. Deschutes County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Wells Ashby recently announced the court would discontinue monitoring bench probation in most misdemeanor cases.
On the defense side, a recent report by the 6th Amendment Center concluded Oregon’s complex bureaucracy hinders effective representation of public-defense clients.
“I will just say, I wish I had the problems he has,” Bend public defender Tom Crabtree said of Hummel.
Crabtree’s firm, Crabtree & Rahmsdorff, and its 15 attorneys, three investigators and six support staff handle 60 percent of the local circuit court’s public defense cases, or 4,362 cases last year.
A starting attorney in his office earns about $66,000 per year, or about $24,000 below what first-year deputy district attorneys in Deschutes County earn, though that gap narrows in Deschutes County as public defenders and deputy district attorneys gain experience.
“It’s appalling,” attorney Shawn Kollie said of the pay gap. “Our DA’s office has some of the highest-paid salaries in the state.”
Kollie’s Kollie Law Group is contracted to work public-defense cases in Deschutes County.
“The DA’s office decides what crimes to charge or not charge, and how aggressively to pursue resolution to criminal matters. Their workflow is directly in their own hands. I strongly oppose any additional funding to the prosecutors or assistants before the rest of the justice system can be balanced out.”
Though the district attorney is funded by the county government, circuit courts, including judge salaries, and public defenders are funded by the state Legislature.
Hummel said comparing the caseloads of public defenders and prosecutors is comparing apples to oranges.
“I support them being adequately staffed. If they want to ask the Legislature for more money, I’ll testify alongside him,” Hummel said of Crabtree. “But we do different things. How many times are they called out to a bloody crime scene at 3 a.m.? How many cases do they present to a grand jury?”
A former defense attorney, Hummel is in his fifth year as district attorney. His current term is up in three years.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, email@example.com