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District attorney creates unit to review past convictions

September 2, 2021 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A Portland criminal defense attorney has joined the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to head a new unit that will examine wrongful convictions and review prison sentences.

District Attorney Mike Schmidt said Wednesday he has set aside $524,000 to staff the Justice Integrity Unit, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

He said Ernest Warren will lead the division and noted that Warren founded the first Black-owned defense law firm in Oregon. Warren will oversee one deputy district attorney and will earn about $203,000 a year.

Multnomah County joins a half-dozen other large city prosecutors’ offices in creating a sentencing review unit and another 90 that have conviction integrity units, said Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and a criminal justice reform advocate who advised Schmidt on the plan.

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Kaplan said it’s unusual for a DA’s office to combine those efforts and to ensure they are robust.

She said analyzing wrongful convictions goes beyond DNA exonerations. The work requires “a real investigation and a deep dive into what happened years and years ago.”

The new unit comes after Schmidt successfully lobbied the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 819, which allows a district attorney and a person convicted of a crime to ask a judge to revisit a conviction or reduce prison time. The bill allows a judge to consider reducing or even erasing a conviction or reducing the length of a person’s sentence.

Schmidt said the work will include reviewing requests from people convicted years ago of crimes such as drug dealing who have stayed out of trouble and want to have felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors so they can seek housing and employment.

“They haven’t had any crimes in over a decade and yet they are stuck with these marks they can’t remove,” he said Wednesday.

The unit also could include looking at juveniles serving time under Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law that applies to the most serious violent crimes. In 2019, the Legislature changed the law in an effort to keep young people out of adult court and its related harsher sentences.

“We are going to have to figure out with the resources we have how many cases we can take on,” Schmidt said, adding that he had spoken with the top prosecutor in Washington’s King County who said a similar unit handled about 30 cases in its first year.

The District Attorney’s Office has had a conviction integrity unit, but Schmidt said the work was previously bare bones.