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Law & Oregon

Lane County’s new District Attorney Patty Perlow
Photo by Todd Cooper
Photo by Todd Cooper

“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders …”

The police, the DAs and the judges were well represented at the Sept. 11 investiture of Lane County’s new district attorney, Patty Perlow. Perlow, a veteran of the Lane County DA’s office since 1990 and chief deputy since 2009, is also the county’s first female DA and the first woman to head the prosecutor’s office in one of Oregon’s top-five most populous counties. 

Perlow plans to make some changes at the DA’s office, she told EW, and put forth initiatives such as a new sexual assault coalition at the University of Oregon.

The mission of the Lane County DA’s office is to “strive to improve public safety and quality of life by prosecuting the guilty, protecting the innocent, securing appropriate support for children and families and determining cause and manner of death in all cases of traumatic or unattended death.” 

The county has said the mission has been hampered by funding cuts, and critics, including EW, have pointed to alleged rapes and crimes that go unprosecuted. So after Alex Gardner, who was elected to the office in 2008 and 2012, stepped down July 31 and then-deputy DA Perlow’s name arose as possible appointee, the question arose: After almost three decades in the DA’s office, what would Perlow do differently?

At the investiture, Perlow mentioned the brief and tumultuous three-week period after she and Kamala Shugar of the state Justice Department both applied for the position. Though a gubernatorial appointment and not an election this time, the competition for the top-cop position played out behind the scenes in offices across the county and also in the pages of The Register-Guard.

Eugene attorney Jessica May wrote a guest opinion piece in the daily paper, taking Perlow to task for listening to a secret recording at the Lane County Jail of a meeting between a Catholic priest and a suspect accused of three murders in 1996. Then-district attorney Doug Harcleroad had authorized the recording as part of an investigation into the murders. Harcleroad, as well as Gardner, attended the investiture, which packed Harris Hall that Friday afternoon. 

Ultimately Gov. Kate Brown appointed Perlow to the position. Brown spoke first at the gathering, after an introduction by Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten Rasmussen. When it was her time to speak, Perlow thanked many in the room, recalled the brief summer tension and joked about the hot meeting room.

Perlow, 52 and a mother of two, is a lifelong Oregonian. Her undergraduate and law degrees are from the UO, and in 1989 she was admitted to the Oregon State Bar. She has said she intends to run for the DA position in the 2016 election and that rather than use the office as a launching point for higher office, she plans to remain there and in Lane County.

Of the race for the DA position, Perlow said, “It made me think about who I am and my vision for the office. I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to be complacent.”

With her self-deprecating sense of humor and easy laugh, it might be tempting for some to take Perlow lightly in the tough role of top prosecutor, but Federal Judge Ann Aiken, who called Perlow’s appointment “an extraordinary choice,” spoke of Perlow’s “steel-trap mind” and told the audience at the ceremony, “if you underestimate her, it’s your doom.”

Aiken, who has known Perlow since 1990, first as a law student and later as a prosecutor, and Brown both spoke of Perlow’s immediate work to forge new alliances to better the work of the DA’s office. 

Aiken said in the first call she received from Perlow after she started her new position, Perlow proposed, “Let’s do some collaboration,” and she said that Perlow looks at issues such as probation “holistically to bring resources to the table.”

Those resources have been few and far between in Oregon counties lately when it comes to law enforcement. A Lane County DA’s budget committee presentation for the 2015-2016 fiscal year says “approximately 1,492 or one in five charges referred to DA by police were not prosecuted in 2014.”

When Gardner stepped down from his position and donned the uniform of the Oregon State Police, where he will head the Forensic Services Division, he cited budget cuts that sapped morale at the DA’s office as a reason for his departure.

Perlow, however, told EW in a recent meeting of her “terrific staff” and says she “couldn’t ask for a better team.” One advantage to her long tenure in the DA’s office, she said, is “I’ve been around so long, I don’t see the obstacles.”

After speaking to Aiken, Perlow arranged a meeting between the Lane County Parole and Probation Office and its federal counterpart, noting their overlap in caseloads. One thing she wants to change, she said, is the tendency not to file low-level cases and wait until the offender has amassed enough of a criminal history to be sent off to prison, rather than intervene early. 

Perlow says the office has applied for and received Justice Reinvestment Initiative grants to create a new property crime diversion program with the Center for Dialogue and Resolution in Lane County and a prison diversion program, aimed at teaching and helping offenders, not simply punishing them, “following the model of setting people up for success,” she said. However in the long run, she cautioned, in terms of funding and staffing, “grants are not a sustainable model.”

EW asked Perlow, in light of recent high-profile rape cases, what she as the DA might do differently when it comes to handling sexual assault on and off campus. For a story on campus rape, EW collected rape statistics for Eugene, Springfield, the UO and Lane County from 2009 through roughly (depending on the jurisdiction) 2014. The numbers showed that out of more than 700 reported rapes only 19 were prosecuted by the Lane County DA’s office with 11 convictions.

Perlow said the DA’s office added $25,000 to its continuing Violence Against Women Act federal grant to help address sexual assault on the UO campus. The DA’s office has received VAWA money in the past, funding a domestic violence investigator, and as of Oct. 1, the added grant money will help fund a prosecutor to work with a newly formed campus sexual assault team. 

The team is a partnership between the DA’s office, campus and Eugene police, PeaceHealth, Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS), the UO’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity and more.

The grant means that a student reporting a sexual assault has a dedicated prosecutor and, as Perlow says, the survivor controls the investigation and knows “that’s my prosecutor right there.” It’s based on Ashland’s “You have options” model, she says. The model operates on the principle that “when a victim is given the ability to control certain aspects of a sexual assault investigation — such as who is contacted and if an arrest is made — law enforcement and the person who was assaulted both benefit.”

Perlow discussed the range of issues that comes up in the course of the DA’s work, from heroin addiction to mental illness, and how these often lack resources for treatment. “The population is growing faster than we are able to meet their needs,” she said. She is also quick to point out that despite a Law and Order-based reputation, the mission of the DA’s office is to do more than just prosecute, citing the work of the victims’ services programs and the medical examiner’s office. 

As she concluded her remarks at the investiture, looking out at the sea of law enforcement officers, judges and attorneys, she said of her new position as Lane County’s district attorney: “It’s the greatest job you could ever have because every day you get to do the right thing.”