Oregon is on the verge of sweeping reform to the state’s mandatory minimum sentences through Measure 11 that supporters believe will give youth offenders a fair opportunity for redemption and rehabilitation. The measure, Senate Bill 1008, would also offer needed corrections to the law passed by voters in 1994, concerning issues that courts later found to be unconstitutional.
SB 1008 has been approved by two-thirds majorities in both chambers, most recently by the House last week (the vote was 40 to 18), and was signed by Senate President Peter Courtney on Wednesday. Those in favor argue that Measure 11, which automatically requires juvenile defendants 15 and older who are charged with certain serious crimes to be tried as adults, does more harm than good for many youth offenders, turning them into hardened criminals through a lifetime of incarceration rather than allowing them the option of a path toward reform and rehabilitation.
“The Oregon Constitution is very clear that we must have a justice system focused on fairness and not vindictiveness,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), a chief proponent of the bill. “When we lock up kids for mandatory minimum sentences, we turn those young people into more serious future offenders by keeping them in the company of adult convicts. Mandatory minimum sentences are turning kids who get into trouble into lifelong criminals, rather than rehabilitating them.”
The legislation makes multiple changes to laws related to the sentencing of youth offenders, including:
The Senate Committee on Judiciary convened a work group with local stakeholders and national experts who examined case law, brain science, best practices, national trends and relevant data to better understand the effects of Measure 11. The group also examined whether Measure 11 ensures justice for victims, protects the public, holds juvenile offenders accountable and provides opportunities to reform and rehabilitate, reducing recidivism and promoting productive citizenry. Senate Bill 1008 is the product of that work group.
In many cases, under the current law, youth who have served time in a juvenile detention facility rehabilitate rather quickly. Under the status quo, Measure 11 offenders convicted as juveniles spend the first part of their sentences in juvenile facilities and then can be transferred to adult prisons once they reach a certain age. That move often wipes out most of the progress that the juvenile has made toward rehabilitation and turns them into lifelong criminals.
Rep. Marty Wilde (D-Eugene), a former deputy district attorney, spoke on the floor about his experiences prosecuting juvenile cases and the need to better understand the circumstances that lead children to commit crimes. It is vital, he said, to consider other factors when sentencing children.
“For those in our system who can be redeemed, we should be focusing on the hope of the future, not the mistakes of the past,” Rep. Wilde said. “There is no justice in treating children as small adults and locking them away without a chance to rehabilitate. Senate Bill 1008 is a commonsense approach that offers balance.”
Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican who has long been an advocate of justice reform, succumbed this week to her battle with lung cancer. But prior to her death, she had released a statement saying she was pleased to see the bill make it across the finish line in her absence.
“I believe in working to ensure fairness in our system for all,” she said. “I believe that youth offenders deserve a second chance. I believe we all need hope and a chance for redemption. We need a public safety system that holds youth accountable for crimes, but just as importantly, ensures they can grow and change for the better.”
But not all Republicans were in favor of SB 1008 as written. A Republican-led amendment that would have referred the measure to voters failed.
Rep. Ron Noble (R-McMinnville) made the motion, pointing out that Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 11 with 66 percent of the vote in November 1994. An attempted repeal of the measure, six years later, failed miserably, with nearly three-quarters of Oregonians opposed.
“We cannot continue to overturn the will of the voters,” Rep. Noble said. “Oregon’s juvenile justice system needs change, but the people need the opportunity to weigh-in on this important reform that affects our youth and our public safety. The voters deserve to be heard.”
The motion to refer the legislation to the people failed by a vote of 23 to 35.
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