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Brian Stimson of The Skanner
Published: 07 January 2009

Oregon's Attorney General-elect John Kroger will be the keynote speaker at The Skanner's upcoming 23rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast. Last week, Kroger sat down to talk with us about his plans for the state's highest law enforcement office.
Kroger, who is a former Assistant United States Attorney, helped to convict major players in the Enron case; is skeptical of some of the strategies used in the War on Drugs, where he helped to convict major traffickers who were easily replaced; and also believes that the Department of Justice means very little until funding is provided for a civil rights enforcement unit

Do you think expanding drug treatment will be accepted by skeptical politicians, law enforcement and members of the public?

Can you get the public to support serious drug treatment, the answer is yes. The key to getting support is to get law enforcement support. The truth of the matter is that with the public at large, if a treatment expert or social worker comes and tells them this is really important, most people will tune that out or take it with a grain of salt. If a sheriff or district attorney says this is the best way to fight crime we have, that allows you to build a much broader political coalition.
And it's not just social workers -- there are law enforcement people like me who think this is absolutely essential if we're going to reduce crime. For me, I'm repositioning this, as not a social welfare program, but a law enforcement tool that will cut crime and make our neighborhoods safer. That requires law enforcement to support it.
The news is really positive. When I first started going across the state talking about it, I wasn't sure how the law enforcement community would respond. They've been overwhelming supportive. A lot of law enforcement people are doing tremendous things.
Bob Herman, the Washington County district attorney, is generally viewed as a tough-on-crime, traditional, no-nonsense prosecutor, definitely not a squishy, feel-good liberal. Bob has been a major supporter of the drug court, a very intensive court supervised drug treatment program. Once we have (law enforcement) on board -- and I've spent the last year and a half working on that -- that makes the politics of selling that to the public a lot easier.
If you look at the states who have sustained a better drug treatment program, they carefully track results and data, they use those to show moderates and conservatives in the legislatures that it's cost effective. You have to show them that you'll save money, results differ, but roughly $5 to $7 dollars is saved in state programs alone. That doesn't include all the other benefits you get, you have fewer people going to prison, fewer enforcement costs, fewer people going to emergency rooms because of health problems related to drug use, fewer kids going into DHS child services. The savings are profound. I've been trying to reframe it in a way voters will understand -- that it will reduce crime and save you money. I spend less time talking about redemption for the individual addict and more about reducing the social costs.

Do you think Department of Human Services' Child Services division needs additional oversight?

Very high on my list over the next four years is child welfare issues. Our child welfare grade was a D last year. Our biggest single program is child support enforcement, if you get more child support money in the hands of poor parents, that will have a huge impact. We run an internet crimes against children task force, which we hope to expand, and we run all the legal work related to children who were abused and neglected. The biggest step that was taken is that there is much more Department of Justice review of files than there was in the past. The legislature mandated that our attorneys review a huge number of files so that they're not only being reviewed by DHS but by attorneys in the department to see if they're any warning signs.
From outside the department I can't tell how much of a benefit that's been. The challenge we have is that we have a huge volume of cases, are there some that don't get so much attention, or just through bad luck a child ends up suffering because they didn't get as much individualized attention, that's just inevitable, and so, I don't think we're ever going to be 100 percent perfect. The challenge is, case loads are going to get worse -- there has to be fewer cases per case worker. The traditional answer was that we need more case workers, which means fewer cases per caseworker; my goal is to have fewer cases, if you have the same number of caseworkers with fewer cases, you get the same result. How do you get fewer cases? I went to the department of justice when I was campaigning. This is the part that astounds me. I asked them what percentage of the children who were abused or neglected had parents involved in drugs – 90 percent – it is overwhelming that abuse is associated with narcotics. You can't be a good parent if you're a heroin addict, but there are people who have been heroin addicts who parent but they parent poorly; there are no people on meth who parent. Meth destroys your moral judgement so profoundly, that is why it is so closely associated with child abuse.
I believe in data and not anecdote, I asked DHS the same question – they said somewhere in the high 80s.
If we want less child abuse, the simple answer is that we have to have fewer drug addicts and again, that is why I believe in drug treatment. It is the overwhelming majority of our child welfare program – right now, we turn parents away from drug treatment, that's not spin, that's true. They can't get help. We have a limited supply of state funding to help people who can't afford to get treatment, and when you turn away a parent from a drug treatement center and say, go back to your kids, none of it is a surprise as to what happens.
The truth is that some people won't get help unless we arrest them and they're facing prison or a drug court – this isn't about an alternative to aggressive law enforcement – the two often go hand in hand. But there are people, its not a trivial number, who do want help. The fact that we turn them away -- its morally blind to begin with, its incredibly short sighted -- we have to put our money behind things that are cost effective and work.

Have you had to change your priorities since the election, given the current economic conditions?

My priorities are exactly the same. I spent a lot of time researching the office; I wasn't interested in doing this for the hell of it. I wanted to make sure this office could achieve what I wanted to accomplish. Things that changed in the shortteerm -- we're not going to have a lot of extra resources.
For treatment, we don't have a good plan yet, we don't have a coherent statewide strategy for treatment and prevention programs. I don't want to spend money until we have that plan with controls in place … This, in some ways, is an opportunity to spend this time getting our act together.
It has focused our consumer protection effort even more. … These problems are never going to go away, the sub-prime mortgage stuff makes Enron look minor. This is going to sharpen our focus even more. As people are tightening their belts, we're going to have debt collection trouble – we're looking closely at what we can to do make sure debt collectors don't abuse the law and are held accountable when they do. It's totally appropriate for people to get paid, it's not appropriate for people to engage in abusive tactics.
The state's college savings plan – the state has a tax free college savings – it was losing a ton of money – the Department of Justice has already initiated an investigation.
Looking to see how we can help on the mortgage problem is a high priority.

Have you looked to other states in looking for solutions to the financial, mortgage crisis?

In other states, they have more law enforcement and legal tools to go after the mortgage industry. Our major fraud statute doesn't apply to banks and mortgage lenders. It's clear that abuses in the financial services industry are not going to go away. I'm doing a review of what our tools are and whether we need to seek advanced tools to go after financial abuse and fraud – it's just a fact, if an automobile dealer engages in abusive or illegal tactics to sell cars, I have the authority to go after them, but the current statutes as interpreted by the courts, doesn't allow me to go after a bank.

How are you planning on addressing civil rights protections in the state?

Oregon law gives the attorney general the right to file civil rights cases in the Oregon courts. We don't have a civil rights enforcement unit. We've got the legal authority, we don't have the people to do it. I don't know what it means to be a justice department if you're not concerned about civil rights.
We are interested in civil rights protection on a broad range of issues.
Employment Discrimination – gender, race, age or now, sexual orientation, it goes much more broadly than that – we now have a domestic partnership law. The implementation will be complex. I don't think people will willfully not comply with the law, but a lot of counties will struggle with what that means, tax implications are complicated.
A woman's right to choose -- isn't meaningful if pharmacies are not dispensing contraception and protestors are blocking clinic entrances. I want to have lawyers who are prepared to be in court within an hour to seek an injunction …;
Veterans – called up to the National Guard service, there's a legal requirement that their jobs are back when they return. A small number find that their jobs have been reclassified and have thus disappeared when they return from duty, I want to make sure we have – whatever you think about the war, but I believe profoundly we need to honor them – I want to have lawyers who can investigate those and determine if any law was broken.
Americans with Disabilities Act – We need to make sure (those laws) are complied with..
Civil Liberties – when the Bush administration started doing things like warrantless wiretapping, it was clear the U.S. Department of Justice was not going to do anything, they were going along with it. I wished that the AGs across the country had done more to push back. The record with the Justice Department in civil rights has been viewed positively, although there have been times they've let us down. I want to be prepared to go to court to protect the civil liberties of our citizens. If any administration does anything to interfere with those rights – the biggest warrantless wiretapping case in the country was here in Oregon with the Al-Haramain case – I don't think it's constitutional. I've written a lot of wiretaps, I teach the 4th amendment. I'd like to be in the position that if something like that happened again we would have the ability to intervene in court.

For all these reasons, we are going to be asking for funding for a civil rights enforcement unit at the Oregon Dept of Justice.

As someone who opposed Measure 39 – the Oregon Constitutional amendment that outlawed gay marriage – how do you balance upholding every law in the state with a personal conviction that says this is an unjust law?

This the one that will cause me the most, the deepest amount of personal reflection. The challenge – I support gay marriage as a policy matter and I think same-sex marriage is totally appropriate and something this country will do in the next 20 years – if we took our case to the Supreme Court I think they would say our ban is constitutional. It wouldn't be 9-0, but they would say the disparity is constitutional. Increasingly, courts are disagreeing with that. If we do have a case that raises this issue, the Oregon Department of Justice wont duck it, I will be personally involved and we will try to get the law right … it's one of those issues where the law is changing very rapidly. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires there be a rational basis for doing so. Is there a rational basis for allowing different sex couples to marry but not same sex couples? I'd be hard pressed to say what that is. The traditional answer was that it was better for the kids, and increasingly, state supreme courts have disagreed with that because the data isn't there, the data doesn't suggest that children of same sex couples are worse off. So for me, that's one of those issues that we'll take up if it comes across our plate.

Why did you come back to a state-level job after being in a national position?

When I worked as a congressional aide and when I worked for Bill Clinton, Truly in America federalism is real. If you look at the progress that is made at the ground, most of its made at the state level. Honestly when people make policy in the us congress, they're cherry picking or learning from programs at the state level. If you look at whats going to affect the welfare of the citizens in Oregon, its really not centered on what happens in Washington, it's what happens in Salem, more so than people realize. Because of the way the national media cover politics, inevitablely people think that what happens in washing ins critical, and that on occasion it can. If Barack Obama passes a national health insurance program, ok. That's a classic example. But Harry Truman started talking about it in the late 40s. For 60 years, most of the action has been at the state level. Medicare and Medicaid were very important, but now it's been 40 years, most of the innovation and what's affected people has been at the state level. When you look at consumer protection, what the state does is far more important than what the federal government does -- even things like major financial fraud. We're so used to viewing that as something the Feds do. No one focused on this, but when Enron went belly up, everyone expected that the federal government would be the major player in figuring out what happened, everyone viewed it as a Texas company, but they were legally incorporated in Oregon. That fact has profoundly influenced my views. If we had the resources and commitment to make sure major corporations that were based here or incorporated here were playing by the rules, we could have prevented a lot of job loss and retirement savings loss that affected literally millions of people.

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The Skanner Foundation's 38th Annual MLK Breakfast