Thanks to the current Marion County District Attorney, Paige Clarkson, and her challenger in the May election, Spencer Todd, I've recovered from the (mild) trauma of watching the previous Salem City Club debate via Zoom between the candidates for Salem Mayor, Chris Hoy and Chane Griggs, where Hoy and Griggs agreed on almost everything and were kind and gentle toward each other.
Morally uplifting, perhaps, but boring.
In contrast, Clarkson and Todd disagreed on almost everything and were pleasingly snarky toward each other. Partly that was because being attorneys, they're used to arguing with their fellow lawyers. But it also is clear that they have decidedly distinct political philosophies.
Paige Clarkson embraces the traditional conservative Law and Order/Lock Them Up model of public safety. Spencer Todd embraces a more modern progressive approach: Deal strictly with those who commit serious crimes, but look for innovative ways to improve the criminal justice system.
The first question asked by moderator Hans West was about Oregon's public defender crisis.
Clarkson said the right thing in noting that all parties in the criminal justice system are necessary, obviously including prosecutors and defenders. But she claimed that the public defender budget totaled more than the budget of all District Attorneys in Oregon combined, so we need to make sure that money is being spent well.
Todd, a public defender himself, countered that the public defender budget includes more line items than the District Attorney budget, so they aren't directly comparable. In fact, Oregon spends way more on prosecuting than defense. He argued that we need more defense lawyers.
In response to a question about Marion County crime rates, Todd said that violent crimes are up while property crimes are down. He observed that we've been trying the same things for 40 years, and it's time to change.
Clarkson said that crime is worse. The reason: all branches of government have reduced tools for law enforcement, using as an example the Oregon legislature's recent restriction on police pulling someone over for a burnt out taillight or other minor equipment infraction. In a rejoinder, Todd observed that things Clarkson complained about are excuse-making, with most not even law yet.
Asked what their biggest concern is in Marion County, Clarkson said child abuse, plus an excessively vague, "Neighborhoods don't feel as safe." Todd went with recidivism, saying, rather obviously, that there's a need to identify people likely to reoffend violently. He also mentioned homelessness and, nonshockingly, a need to reform the District Attorney's office, with crimes going unprosecuted by the incumbent, who happens to be Clarkson.
Measure 110, which voters approved by a 58-42% margin in 2020, decriminalized personal non-commercial possession of street drugs like cocaine and heroin, requiring people found with such drugs to either pay a $100 fine or complete a health assessment.
In regard to whether Measure 110 is on track, Todd said that before the measure passed, drug users could be arrested, jailed for six months, and not get any treatment. He views Measure 110 as better than before, but it isn't doing all that was planned. "I'd rather prosecute more serious crimes," he said. Clarkson said she's a vocal opponent of Measure 110, in part because few people have sought treatment rather than pay the $100 fine. It "rolled out the red carpet for drug cartels," according to Clarkson.
Both Clarkson and Todd said they favor mobile crisis response teams like Eugene's CAHOOTS program that has diverted about 17% of police calls to non-uniformed responders. Todd said that if we can't get more police, police resources should be used more efficiently, one reason he supports mobile crisis response teams.
Lastly, Todd views the death penalty as incredibly cost-ineffective given the lengthy appeals process. He said it isn't an effective deterrent and it takes away the ability of a prisoner to repent, something he sees as important. Which made me think, OK, but given how long prisoners spend on Death Row in Oregon (executions are rare), isn't there plenty of time to repent? Clarkson said that voters have approved of the death penalty, which doesn't exist in Oregon for all intents and purposes. She supports it in certain circumstances.