PORTLAND, Ore. — Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill will retire effective July 31, five months before his term was set to end.
Underhill, who has spent 30 years in the prosecutor’s office and seven years in the lead role, made the announcement in an email Tuesday to staff with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
“This decision – both difficult and necessary – is intended to put the interests of this office and our community first and follows significant personal and professional reflection,” Underhill wrote.
His resignation comes amid calls for criminal justice reform to address systemic racism.
“During my tenure as District Attorney, we have sought to make intentional changes to our public safety system to reduce disparate impacts on our black community. It is time to do much more. That change will require immediate action, coupled with long-term strategy and vision to ensure successful, meaningful and lasting implementation. And while I welcome that challenge and that change, I must be honest with myself and with you. My term expires in six months; it would be shortsighted of me and unfair to the office and our community to spend my remaining time advocating for and enacting that strategic vision, and then looking to DA-Elect Schmidt to begin that process anew, and potentially differently, in January,” Underhill said.
Underhill said he spoke with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Monday and recommended she appoint District Attorney-elect Mike Schmidt to serve out the remainder of his term, beginning Aug. 1.
Schmidt decisively won the Oregon primary last month with 77% of the vote. He is the executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. He ran on a platform of social justice reform and changing the way the district attorney’s office operates.
“At this critical moment in our nation’s history, Multnomah County is ready for real change. Every day for the past 19 days, Oregonians have taken to the streets to demand justice for those killed by police and to call for true accountability in law enforcement,” Schmidt said in a statement Tuesday. “In order to move forward, we must be willing to recognize and call out the systemic racism in our criminal justice system and other institutions.”
In an interview with Laural Porter on KGW’s Straight Talk a couple weeks ago, Schmidt said the first thing he would change when taking office is making the district attorney's office more transparent. He wants to make the data at the district attorney's office public and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
From there, Schmidt believes reform can begin. That reform includes implementing a restorative justice model where it might fit certain cases. Schmidt said restorative justice is not a new concept. It dates back to aboriginal cultures in New Zealand and to Native Americans.
“The idea is how do you heal the harm,” he said.
The model recognizes the criminal justice system has often focused on punishment and retribution, and not healing the harm done. He wants to look at misdemeanor and low-level crime cases that might benefit from restorative justice.
“I think there’s a great opportunity and challenge with what we have with the COVID crisis and terrible budgetary times. We are going to have to be creative in how we handle the huge backlog of cases,” Schmidt said.