Great news! Reporting by InvestigateWest journalists drove positive change in both the Washington and Oregon statehouses in the 2017 legislative sessions. A half-dozen laws passed in each state to right wrongs exposed by InvestigateWest journalists. People who will benefit include foster kids, foster parents, people of color and citizens seeking public records from their government.
“Your reporting really made people aware of the problems, and created a sense of urgency,” said Washington state Rep. Ruth Kagi, who has led the charge to help foster kids for more than a decade. “Those articles – it was amazing – the whole issue came into its own because of the reporting you did.”
This is how independent, fact-based journalism is supposed to work: We report problems and highlight potential solutions. This high-quality news and analysis inspires and guides legislators and others to take action to improve the situation. That’s why InvestigateWest exists – to bring about positive change for the common good.
Here’s a rundown of our impact in Olympia and Salem so far this year:
- The Washington Legislature appropriated more than $48 million to reform child welfare programs, better support foster parents, lower social worker caseloads, and help foster youth get driver’s licenses and access to lawyers, among other efforts. Six new laws passed.
- In Oregon, the Legislature approved far-reaching criminal-justice legislation. Reforms include mandatory collection of data by police who stop citizens for whatever reason, which is aimed at minimizing instances of policy profiling by race. The bill also makes possession of small amounts of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine misdemeanors instead of felonies, a move that will reduce jail time and fines in favor of steering defendants toward substance abuse treatment. The crimes were shown to disproportionately affect minority communities in our Unequal Justice project earlier this year.
- The Oregon Legislature also finally took action to reinvigorate the state’s public-records law, passing four new laws detailed below.
- The Oregon Legislature required grand juries to record their proceedings.
Our foster care series revealed a system in crisis, with foster parents quitting and caseworkers sometimes having to house foster kids in motels or even their offices. The Washington Legislature ordered structural reforms that will put the foster care program under a newly created Department of Children, Youth and Families. Reporting by Allegra Abramo and Susanna Ray, photography by Paul Joseph Brown and editing by George Erb and me was supported by Judy Pigott, the Satterberg Foundation, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Thomas V. Giddens Jr. Foundation.
The online news site Crosscut.com and public television station KCTS9, known together as Cascade Public Media, were our distribution partners for the foster care series, and worked to put together a panel discussion at Town Hall late last year attended by several hundred people.
“It was the energy in that room that really excited me and made me want to use that energy to really build momentum for positive change,” Kagi said.
The Unequal Justice project, also supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism as well as the Loyal Bigelow and Jedediah Dewey Foundation, was a partnership with independent journalist Kate Willson and the Pamplin Media Group. The Pamplin Group contributed reporting and editing from John Schrag, Nicholas Budnick and Shasta Kearns Moore, and photography by Jaime Valdez. InvestigateWest Managing Director Lee van der Voo coordinated the project and contributed extensive reporting.
The Washington Post, reporting on the laws’ passage, described the Unequal Justice series:
“In February, a yearlong investigation by InvestigateWest, titled Unequal Justice, revealed that Oregon’s black and Hispanic residents routinely experienced unfair treatment within the criminal justice system.
“Reporters analyzed more than a decade of court records and found that minority residents were far more likely to be charged for dozens of crimes, from minor infractions such as littering and jaywalking to more serious offenses, such as robbery.”
Van der Voo also had an influence on the passage of four laws on government transparency in Oregon. For the past three years she has tracked transparency in public records and government meetings through her monthly InvestigateWest column, Redacted. Meanwhile, she has cultivated expertise that today makes her a member of the Sunshine Committee for the Oregon Territory Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the board of Open Oregon, the state’s only freedom of information coalition.
Following significant effort by those groups, and by transparency advocates, including those in leadership, Oregon passed four key transparency initiatives this session. They now provide Oregonians with:
- Deadlines by which public officials must respond to requests for public records, and a full catalog of exemptions to the Oregon Public Records Law.
- A Sunshine Committee to review exemptions to the law. Public interest statements will now be required to accompany any newly proposed exemptions.
- An ombudsman to mediate disputes between those requesting records from state agencies and the agency themselves, along with a governor’s council on transparency issues.
- A new law that will prevent state agencies from entering into technology contracts that reduce the transparency of public data that is managed by third parties, usually information-technology companies.
GRAND JURY SECRECY
The Oregon Legislature also passed a bill requiring grand juries to make audio recordings of their proceedings. In 2014 and 2015, van der Voo produced a series of stories, including one that ran in The Guardian, revealing how poorly grand jury proceedings are documented, and how that leads to injustices. Previously, a single juror took handwritten notes of grand juries. Now there will be audio recordings that defendants can access with a judge’s order.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to all the readers who have helped support this important work.