PORTLAND, Ore. — Asian American groups, prosecutors and crime victims are pushing to change a statewide policy that allowed a man to be released from jail immediately after being booked on a first-degree bias crime in Portland last month.
Portland police say Dylan Kesterson punched a father and his 5-year-old daughter in a racially motivated attack in early July. Both victims are of Japanese descent.
Kesterson has since been accused of at least three prior racist attacks in downtown Portland.
On Monday, a Criminal Justice Advisory Pretrial Subcommittee supported changing the policy so that people who are charged with first-degree bias crime are not released before their case is heard by a judge.
The Oregon District Attorney’s Association called for the "immediate and urgent" change in statewide policy following Kesterson’s release from jail.
In a letter sent to the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee, the Portland Japanese American Citizens League argued that people arrested on a bias crime should remain in custody until arraignment because of the danger they present to the community.
“We call on our courts to take bias crimes and public safety seriously. Communities should no longer constantly feel threatened by the ‘catch & release’ of such perpetrators,” wrote Portland JACL in the letter, which was signed by 15 other Asian American organizations.
Any change to the court’s release policy would require an order by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters, followed by amended guidelines for each circuit court.
Portland police arrested Kesterson, 34, on July 2 after he allegedly yelled anti-Asian slurs and assaulted the man and his daughter along the Eastbank Esplanade.
After being booked on first-degree bias crime, Oregon’s most serious hate crime, Kesterson was told to call into a court hearing the following week and then allowed to walk free. Kesterson had no prior criminal history in Oregon.
He failed to show up for a subsequent court hearing, then was was re-arrested on July 6. He pleaded not guilty.
Kesterson’s release back onto the streets just hours after the alleged attack sparked citywide outrage. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler demanded a review of the criminal justice system.
In a statement, city commissioner Mingus Mapps called the attack “horrific” and “unacceptable” and expressed concern that Kesterson was released from jail the same day that he was arrested.
The guidelines for when to release defendants prior to their first court appearance is based on a statewide order issued by the Chief Justice. The pretrial release guidelines were rewritten as a result of Senate Bill 48, which moved the state away from a bail-based system to one that focuses on a person’s potential threat to the community. It went into effect on July 1, one day prior to Kesterson’s arrest.
In general, the new guidelines require that people charged with more serious offenses — including violent felonies, sex crimes and domestic violence felonies or misdemeanors — not be released until they appear before a judge.
John Kodachi, a Portland attorney and former president of the JACL, said the Kesterson case illustrates why bias crimes need to be added to the list of "hold until arraignment" charges.
“Once immediately released, that person is potentially capable of engaging in another attack, another assault,” warned Kodachi. “As a community, we feel it is important to keep that person locked up until they are presented before a judge who can make a better determination about release or not.”
Kesterson is facing 23 counts, including charges stemming from two separate incidents months earlier.
A new indictment filed Monday accused Kesterson of a bias attack on April 9 where he allegedly robbed a woman. Details of that incident have not been released.
Kesterson is also accused of racially motivated attacks on April 17, where he allegedly harassed three different women in downtown Portland because of their race.
“Hate crimes are real and they are detrimental to people’s health,” explained Tyra Blackmon, one of the women targeted in that incident. The Michigan woman said that she’s still dealing with physical and mental effects of the violent, unprovoked attack. A private security guard took photos of Kesterson after the alleged incident.
Blackmon expressed frustration that Kesterson wasn’t apprehended after he assaulted her in April, and said she was dumbfounded to hear that he was allowed to walk free after a similar attack in July.
“He could have easily assaulted someone else,” said Blackmon. “He doesn’t see what is wrong with the issue and so if you have people immediately released from jail — he can easily do it again.”
A Japanese student living in Portland told KGW that Kesterson screamed and slapped him in the face on June 25 in downtown Portland. To date, no charges have been filed in that case.
A recent report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found anti-Asian incidents in the state increased by almost 200 percent last year. Victim advocates explain many bias crimes against the Asian American community go unreported for fear of retaliation or to avoid bringing unwanted attention to victims or their families.
“People within various communities may feel that, 'If I report it, nothing is going to get done anyway,'” explained Kodachi. “Having bias crime included as a hold until arraignment type of crime, I think gives some assurance that the system is treating that crime very seriously and protecting the public.”