While African Americans in Multnomah County make up less than 6 percent of the population, they make up about 22 percent of the jail population.
That overrepresentation – while not new – prompted County Commissioner Loretta Smith to bring together local youth, community members, law enforcement officials, and Black elected county officials from across the United States on Wednesday, May 31 to discuss solutions and best practices to address racial disparities in Multnomah County's justice system.
Commissioner Smith hosted the Black and Brown Boys and Men Town Hall in the Multnomah Building board room as a precursor to the National Organization of Black County Officials’ annual Economic Development Conference taking place from May 31 to June 4 in Portland. Commissioner Smith and Multnomah County serve as the conference’s host.
The town hall was emceed by author and actor Hill Harper. Panelists included Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill; Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese; Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Derrick Peterson; Los Angeles-based filmmaker A.J. Ali, and Alameda County, Calif. Supervisor Keith Carson.
In the packed board room, Commissioner Smith said that many of Multnomah County’s racial disparities are mirrored in communities across the nation.
“We need to get to the bottom of it,” Commissioner Smith said. “We need to figure out how can we decrease some of those disparities.”
Harper, who has authored books and starred in television and film, highlighted the current climate for addressing racial disparities and the key role that access to public education plays.
“It seems the political debate has become more and more preoccupied with power maintenance with very few real solutions ever offered,” Harper said. “Meanwhile millions of young men and women graduate from the streets and matriculate to prison rather than to college.”
Hill shared statistics on what he called a “hyper incarceration” crisis:
About 2.24 million people in the United States are now held in federal, state, and local jails.
More than one-quarter of the world’s total of 8 million prisoners are housed in the U.S.
The U.S. is 5 percent of the world’s population, yet incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s inmates.
Another 4.8 million people are under parole, supervision, or probation.
In 30 years, the United States’ prison system has quintupled.
Harper asked the panelists to address topics including sentencing disparities, law enforcement living in the communities in which they work, fear of police and police training and recruitment.
District Attorney Underhill spoke about his office’s work to identify root causes of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The county was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant in 2015, which led to the publication of a Racial and Ethnic Disparities Report in 2016. The report found that Black people are overrepresented at every stage through Multnomah County's adult criminal justice system - from arrest through sentencing.
“We need to sink our teeth into what we’re seeing here” to make policy adjustments, Underhill said.
Commissioner Smith also highlighted the Coalition of Communities of Color’s report, “Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile,” which highlights the social and economic exclusion faced by people of color.
“You can’t achieve equity when you face challenges like this. Education should offer a pathway out of poverty but all too often it doesn’t,” Commissioner Smith said.
Smith, who has championed jobs for young people in Multnomah County, focused on how a community supports its youth.
“Until we give our young people an opportunity to have an opportunity there are going to be high disparities in the jail system, there are going to be long sentences longer than anyone else, there are going to be folks who live in communities who are highly policed,” Commissioner Smith said.