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Criminal justice reform at the ballot box: Even County Auditors are worth your attention

In some counties - like Multnomah County, Oregon - auditors are joining the movement to hold jails accountable.

by Wanda Bertram, October 31, 2018

Jail reform is on the ballot next week in Multnomah County, Oregon, but it isn’t part of a popular initiative or gubernatorial campaign. It’s a key issue at stake in an unlikely, historically “boring” race: the race for County Auditor.

What could a County Auditor possibly do to reform criminal justice policy? Five years ago, the same question might have been asked about district attorneys or sheriffs. But as the public comes to understand the role that prosecutors, sheriffs and other local electeds can play in reversing mass incarceration, those offices are becoming centers of reform in some areas. The Auditor’s office could be next.

If you think of auditors as glorified bookkeepers, both of the candidates in Multnomah County’s runoff election would disagree. Candidate Scott Learn’s website says the Audit Office “needs to focus far less on informational reports…and far more on helping to improve the effectiveness of crucial county services.” He’s interested in auditing probation and parole services, the local juvenile detention center, and mental health services at the county jail.

Learn’s opponent, Jennifer McGuirk, says that “one of the Auditor’s most important responsibilities is deciding which programs to audit.” McGuirk, too, plans to audit the county’s jails. She was inspired to run after reports emerged of racist abuse in the jails, reports that the previous County Auditor declined to look into.

To be sure, Learn and McGuirk are departing from how auditors have traditionally done their jobs. County Auditors are mainly tasked with rooting out local agencies’ mismanagement of funds.

But to be clear: Abusive, inhumane treatment by criminal justice agencies is a misuse of funds. Jails receive public money (and quite a lot of it) for the purpose of “providing effective detention, rehabilitation, and transition services,” as the Multnomah County Sheriff’s website puts it. Human rights violations fall somewhat outside of this mission, so it’s logical that the County Auditor’s office should investigate.

With two reform-minded candidates neck-and-neck in this race, it’s clear that Multnomah County voters agree that justice reform should be a priority. Will your city or county be next?

Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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