During one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history, Multnomah County’s new district attorney, Mike Schmidt, takes office. Schmidt’s official term starts on Jan. 1, 2021, but Gov. Kate Brown appointed him to the job this summer so he could complete the term of our prior district attorney, Rod Underhill, who retired July 31. Schmidt takes office amid both a global pandemic and worldwide protests condemning systemic racism in the justice system that dates back to that system’s founding.
Schmidt’s resume includes stints as a public school teacher in Louisiana, a deputy district attorney for Multnomah County, counsel for Oregon’s House and Senate Judiciary Committees, and director of the state’s Criminal Justice Commission — which is charged with, among many tasks, reporting on racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. He fought for legislation that decreases racial disparities and that treats addiction as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Read his full biography here.
Today, he lives in Portland with his family. Schmidt enjoys playing darts, board games, watching the Blazers and the New Orleans Saints, and spending time with his family exploring Oregon.
We asked him about his path to and plans for the District Attorney’s Office.
You were a public school teacher in New Orleans. What did you teach and what was the moment that you realized you needed to do something different?
I was a high school social studies teacher for two years, and I loved my time in the classroom. But, I went into teaching with the idea that I could get firsthand knowledge about our education system, and how it was succeeding and failing. I always knew that I wanted to end up being a lawyer. So, right before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I packed up all of my earthly belongings to attend law school at Lewis and Clark right here in Multnomah County.
What did you see as a deputy prosecutor that led you to go to the Legislature instead of staying in the DA’s office?
DA Mike Schrunk gave me the opportunity to work for the Legislature in 2013. I got the “policy bug” after spending that session in Salem. My experiences as counsel for the Judiciary Committees showed me firsthand how we can change the laws in our system. I knew I could do the most good for Oregonians working on statewide criminal justice policy, so I decided to continue my career with the Criminal Justice Commission.
What do you want to see in two to four years? How can you make a difference?
In two to four years, I hope some of our state laws have changed. I’d like to see the end of cash bail. I’d like to see the end of mandatory minimum sentencing practices. And I will be working with the Legislature to advocate for those changes, among others. I will make a difference by showing up. I will show up in Salem to advocate for reform. I will show up in the community to listen to what a broader, more inclusive vision of public safety means for everyone. And, I will show up to work with a dedicated staff of excellent professionals who care deeply about making a difference in our community.
How will you address the prevailing issue of racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system?
I want to use a data-driven approach to specifically look at the racial disparities in our system and to then find ways my office can become a positive force in decreasing those disparities. The good news is that work is already in practice here in Multnomah County, as well as in the District Attorney’s Office. I look forward to continuing to engage and take our efforts to the next level by looking at specific charging practices, how we handle pretrial negotiations and plea offers, and looking to expand diversion policies and programs.
How do you see your workforce truly connecting with the community and reflecting the community?
I want to see our attorneys and staff out in the community, meeting with different groups and organizations and participating in discussions and listening to what people have to say. Ultimately, we want to build a system where we can create more public safety by engaging community members to be a part of the solution. We will also continue the work of our “Equity, Dignity and Opportunity Council,” looking into hiring practices and how we can do a better job recruiting and supporting a diverse workforce in the District Attorney’s Office.
What book influenced or inspired you the most?Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair by Danielle Sered. This is one of the best books on restorative justice that I’ve come across, about doing things differently in the criminal justice system. Danielle Sered writes beautifully about a system that centers what a victim truly needs to heal, and what holding someone accountable for actions that harm others can look like. Her work shows that we can get better public safety outcomes and serve victims of crime better by moving away from an overly punitive paradigm, and incorporating restorative practices and philosophy into our criminal justice system.