Wasco County District Attorney Matthew Ellis appeared at The Dalles City Council meeting on Monday, April 10, where he gave a presentation on the work that has been done by himself and the District Attorney’s Office, as well as limitations and challenges faced by the office.
Ellis has been in office more than two years and, as the district attorney serves terms of four years, he felt it was appropriate to give a “mid-term report,” he said. Following his presentation, he mentioned he would be interested in giving similar reports annually going forward, which was a sentiment agreed with by the council.
In his presentation, Ellis explained that one of the challenges faced during his term thus far has been staffing. Though the District Attorney’s Office is small, they had a 90% turnover rate following his election and during his transition into office, he said. Now, however, he said they have been able to bring many strong people to the team, with the office now having 11 staff members.
“It was a rough ride at the beginning, but I think at this point we’ve resolved some of those issues to get to the point where we have full staff,” Ellis said. “And I’m very proud of the staff that we have right now … We have a very engaged, very competent staff that the county and the city should be very proud of.”
Many of the points Ellis touched upon during the council meeting were similar to those he mentioned during his presentation at the homelessness town hall on April 3, including the specialty courts that the office has. However, as the April 3 presentation was limited to 10 minutes, his April 10 presentation was able to go into more depth.
One of the things Ellis was able to talk about was the software system that they used, a case management program called Prosecutor by Karpel. He explained that while it was a very good program, it’s only as good as the information that the office puts into it. To improve their ability to do so, he said they sent both the office manager and victim advocate, as well as one of the attorneys, to the annual Karpel conference.
With Karpel, the office is able to keep statistics for case referrals, as well as cases charged out. Ellis showed that 2022 was the highest ever level of cases referred to the district attorney’s office, with 1,590 referrals. As the office has only four attorneys, including Ellis, this means there’s a very heavy caseload for each attorney.
Additionally, the number of cases that actually needed to be filed was also much higher in 2021.
“Last year was the highest number of cases that we’ve ever filed,” Ellis said. “It was the first time that Wasco County has actually filed more than a thousand cases with the circuit court.”
Ellis also spoke on Measure 110 and how it had affected the cases seen by the office, as it decriminalized many drugs in the State of Oregon. He mentioned that, previously, if someone had a trace amount of methamphetamine in their system, they could be charged, whereas now, the bar is much higher.
“The drug cases that we see that were charged out are the ones that are very high level drug crimes,” he said. “So those would be somebody who had substantial quantity or had what was known as a commercial drug offense.”
According to Ellis, having a reduction in drug crimes has not changed the caseload for the office. Instead, those charges have gone other places, with misdemeanor thefts shooting up, when comparing 2018 before Measure 110 and 2022 after.
Ellis then gave the statistics for 2023 so far, which included data starting from the first of the year and going until March 31. He said the office had received 346 referrals so far, which, if multiplied by four to account for the rest of the year, would indicate the numbers may be going down, though it is hard to tell thus far.
Despite the referral rate seeming to drop, the charge rate has not, Ellis said. So far, the office has charged out 255 cases, with 41 being felonies. At the moment, the charge rate is 73.7%, which he said would be on par to be the highest he’s seen.
Another thing Ellis touched on was the system in Oregon in which the level of felony matters less than an individual’s “criminal score,” in which different crimes have different levels. Criminal scores range from one to 11, with higher scores being “presumptive prison” and lower scores being “presumptive probation.”
Ellis also mentioned positions the office was interested in adding, including a part-time restitution clerk and an in-house investigator.
After Ellis’ presentation, the council was able to ask questions. City Councilor McGlothlin asked how the city could aid the office, and Ellis asked that the city encourage people to testify as witnesses, rather than being anonymous sources. Additionally, he mentioned the in-house investigator position again, saying that having funding from the city would be helpful, at some point.
McGlothlin also asked about Ellis’ opposition to Measure 11, which imposes mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes. Ellis explained that when Measure 11 was passed over 30 years ago, it was during a time where states were pushing to be “tough on crime.” However, since then, it has been found that there was no statistical difference in crime rates between states that passed minimum mandatory sentences and those that didn’t. All it has done has increased jail population, he said.
However, Ellis said that wasn’t his problem with Measure 11; instead, he said his biggest problem was that it lacks nuance and doesn’t take anything into account besides the crime committed.
“For instance, if somebody is charged with robbery in the first degree, it’s 90 months,” he said. “It’s a ceiling and a floor. Doesn’t matter the criminal history, doesn’t matter their background, it doesn’t matter what happened with that particular crime … It does not give us the opportunity to have a spectrum of potential sentences based on the circumstances around the crime, the victim’s wishes and the individual.”
He also explained that it takes away the judge’s ability to charge, leaving charges completely to the prosecutor and district attorney. Additionally, he believes it takes away the need for anyone to do programming while in prison, or try to improve, as it doesn’t matter how you behave, you will get out in the same amount of time.
In other business, the city council unanimously voted to authorize a contract for Phase 2 for the reroofing of the Wicks Filter Building. Additionally, Human Resources Director Daniel Hunter presented a modified wage table for non-union employees, which was also passed by the council.