PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When Mike Schmidt was elected Multnomah County District Attorney in 2020, he was clear about ideas to reform the criminal justice system. Now a newly implemented treatment and probation program is making some reforms a reality.
The Strategic Treatment and Engagement Program — STEP — combines treatment for drugs and mental health for offenders facing Measure 11 crimes.
Instead of giving violent offenders lengthy prison sentences, eligible candidates are going to multiple court dates a week and getting behavioral health treatment. The DA’s office argues treatments for drug and alcohol use and mental illness lower rates of re-offending more than incarceration.
To be clear, not all Measure 11 crimes are eligible for STEP Court. It excludes sex offenses, kidnapping, domestic violence and homicides.
Sobriety is required. But those eligible for STEP don’t get kicked out for a single relapse. Instead, they are sanctioned.
“STEP Court is a first-of-its-kind program where we’ve taken treatment court models and applied them to high-level felony crimes that are subject to mandatory minimum sentencing via ballot Measure 11,” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Mariel Mota. “It aims to take a closer look at the root causes of the criminal behavior.”
So far there are more than 60 candidates in STEP Court. At least 2 have been sent back to prison for failing to comply.
Not all experts in criminal justice approve of Schmidt’s approach to handling violent offenders, including former Clackamas County DA John Foote.
“It is really to let people escape from the punishments that were voted by the voters in Oregon in Measure 11,” Foote told KOIN 6 News.
He’s also concerned about the impact on public safety.
“We don’t think criminals pay attention to how society responds to their criminal behavior, but they do. And the more you permit it, the more of it you get.”
PSU Criminal Justice Professor Mark Leymon likens Schmidt’s approach to using carrots instead of sticks as a deterrent.
“It’s a lot cheaper, actually, to treat individuals in the community than it is to use prison,” Leymon said.
But he added a program like this requires accountability.
“If somebody’s not following through on the program, there is still prison.”
STEP Court is a risk Schmidt is willing to take to see if it will reduce recidivism and the prison population.