It was a big year in criminal justice in Deschutes County and beyond — 2020 may be the most significant year since the civil rights era of the 1960s.
Social justice rallies were held in Central Oregon, echoing sentiment felt nationwide after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police officers in May. A sheriff was re-elected in Deschutes County. A new Bend Police chief was appointed. A new president was elected. And an Oregon ballot measure decriminalized most hard drugs.
And it all happened during a historic pandemic that hampered an already understaffed Deschutes County Circuit Court.
This year, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, a seasoned local public figure, assumed a greater public role in the spotlight. The former defense attorney and Bend city councilor took a few minutes to talk reform, police relations and what’s next for him.
Progressive district attorneys have become a type nationwide. Do you claim that title?
Sure. Progressive, to me, means you’re always looking to improve. You’re not stuck in the past. I’m always looking to improve our criminal justice system. It needs improvement. That doesn’t mean it’s abysmal. I’m not one of those DAs who says our criminal justice system is terrible.
What one change could have the biggest positive impact in the criminal justice system in Deschutes County?
Well, we’re seeing it with body cameras for the Bend Police Department and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. I’ve been advocating for that for years, and unfortunately, this is one of the positives that came out of the killing of George Floyd.
I mean, Redmond has been a progressive leader on this: They’ve had bodycams for years, and it’s really helped my office determine the facts. Oftentimes, the facts help the police, like when a person makes a false accusation against a cop. And sometimes, the facts help the suspect. It’s great because I just want to know the facts. And right now, I’m better able to know the facts when an incident happened in Redmond than anywhere else in the county. And it’s good that’s going to change.
In a recent anonymous survey, Bend Police officers said your office declines to charge a high number of their arrestees. Does this represent a dysfunctional disconnect between law enforcement and your office?
Look, I want all my decisions to be gratified by people above me. I don’t like it when a judge rules against me, but it’s a part of the system, right? My job is not to rubber-stamp every case the police send me.
I get that cops don’t feel great when we decline one of their cases. But I don’t feel great when a judge rules against my office. And those judges who rule against my office, they don’t feel great when their decisions are reversed by the Oregon Court of Appeals, and those Court of Appeals judges don’t feel good when the Oregon Supreme Court reverses their decisions. That’s part of the system. My job is not to serve the police or anyone other than the Constitution, the laws and justice. That’s what I focus on.
Measure 110, which passed this election and which decriminalizes hard drugs, is pretty ambitious, including calls for statewide addiction recovery services. Do you think Oregon and Deschutes County are ready for the new law?
We are if it’s enacted as Oregonians wanted it to be. I was very concerned when Gov. Brown sent her budget to the Legislature and she was interested in defunding the measure and not paying for treatment. I mean, this is a package deal.
Oregonians said drug addiction is a medical issue, not a criminal justice issue. But that’s only going to work if we fund addiction treatment. If it wasn’t going to be funded, I wouldn’t have supported it. So I’ll be advocating in Salem that the Legislature fully fund the treatment component of Measure 110.
You advocated to strike down Oregon’s nonunanimous jury law, which the U.S. Supreme Court did this April. Yet your office still intends to retry some people convicted by nonunanimous juries. Why?
The Supreme Court hasn’t said they’re innocent. They’re sending the case back so the prosecutor can decide how to proceed. But with the vast majority of these cases, we are proceeding. In some cases, the witnesses aren’t available or there are other reasons we can’t proceed.
Throughout the year your prosecutors have opposed motions to reduce bail for nonviolent offenders in custody prior to trial. Why keep people in jail for things like parole violations during a pandemic?
Well, we’ve certainly asked for release in hundreds of cases, as well. There are significantly fewer people in jail now than there were prior to COVID. We’ve worked with the sheriff to create a flow-chart to say who should be held pretrial and who should not held. Whenever we ask for someone to be held, we’re doing that because we think they’re either a risk to the public or they’re a risk to not appear in court. That’s why we make those arguments, and ultimately, it’s never our decision, it’s always the judge who decides.
You’ve said if President-elect Biden opts to replace Oregon’s federal prosecutor, Billy J. Williams, you would be “honored to be considered.” What could you bring to that role?
Well, I just want to double down and say I am 100% not trying to run Billy Williams out of office. That needs to be clear. I support Billy Williams. But if President Biden chooses to look for a new U.S. attorney in Oregon, I would be honored to be considered. I’m proud of what our team has done in Deschutes County over the last six years, making our justice system more just while also holding accountable the guilty.
It bothers me greatly that Black Lives Matter and support for our police have been seen as mutually exclusive. That if you support Black lives you have to be anti-police, and if you support the police you have to believe that Black lives don’t matter. I know that you can support the police and Black lives, because I do. I know it’s possible.
Do you have other aspirations beyond Deschutes district attorney?
Oh, I’ve got two years left on my term, so it ain’t decision time yet. I’ll decide at the appropriate time. I’m honored every day to represent Deschutes County and I’d be honored to do it for a third term.