The Oregon State Senate on Tuesday passed a slate of reforms to the juvenile justice system, including a provision that ends the automatic referral of juveniles facing Measure 11 charges to adult court.
Senate Bill 1008 passed 20-to-10. Nine of those who voted against the bill are Republicans; Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose was the lone Democrat to cast a no vote.
The bill, which represents the first major reform to Oregon’s juvenile justice system in decades, now heads to the Oregon House.
The bill is backed by the Oregon Department of Corrections chief, Colette Peters, the association that represents juvenile department directors and criminal justice reform advocates.
It includes a number of significant changes.
It would require prosecutors to request a hearing to determine whether juveniles facing Measure 11 charges should be moved to adult court. Currently juveniles accused of those crimes automatically go to adult court.
Measure 11 is a mandatory minimum sentencing law approved by voters in 1994. It requires that anyone 15 to 17 who is arrested for certain crimes be charged as an adult. Measure 11 charges come with high bail and long prison sentences. Crimes covered by the law include sex offenses, murder, robbery and assault.
The bill would do away with life without parole sentences for juveniles. Anyone convicted of a crime when they are younger than 18 would get a chance to seek parole after 15 years. Proponents say 21 states and Washington, D.C., also have eliminated life without parole for juvenile offenders.
According to the state, 15 offenders are serving life sentences for juvenile Measure 11 convictions; two are serving life without parole.
The bill also gives juveniles convicted of Measure 11 crimes the opportunity for a so-called “second look” hearing half-way through their sentences. According to the bill, a judge would consider allowing young offenders to serve the rest of their sentences under community-based supervision instead of prison.
Currently, such hearings are generally available only to juveniles serving non-Measure 11 sentences.
It provides for an additional review by a judge for juvenile offenders before they are transferred to an adult prison; juvenile offenders serving time for Measure 11 convictions are transferred to adult prison at age 25. This review would apply to cases where offenders have two years left on their sentence.
Kimberly McCullough, policy director for the ACLU of Oregon, a backer of the bill, said Measure 11 was approved “at the height of the tough-on-crime era.”
“What we have learned since then is that youth are better served by staying in the juvenile justice system,” she said.
McCullough said the state’s analysis found that youths who transfer to adult prisons are twice as likely to reoffend when they get out compared with youths who remain in juvenile facilities. A 2007 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that youths are 34 percent more likely to reoffend when prosecuted in an adult system versus a juvenile one.
In emotional remarks on the Senate floor, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, described his own troubled youth. He said he was involved in violent fights as a young person.
“I will be frank with you,” he said. “I am not going to go into detail. I had a temper when I was younger. There is no doubt I was involved in some things that had there been a Measure 11, I would be incarcerated.”
He said adults who believed in him gave him a second chance.
“I am voting yes because I have not given up on the young people, children of Oregon, my Oregon, who have gotten themselves in trouble,” Courtney said.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, also spoke in support of the bill, saying Oregon spends three times as much on juvenile offenders as it does on adults in prison. He said that money is ultimately wasted when young offenders serving Measure 11 sentences are transferred to the Oregon Department of Corrections, where their focus shifts to survival.
“So all of that investment goes away,” Prozanski said.
The Oregon District Attorneys Association opposed components of the bill and urged lawmakers to refer any Measure 11 changes to voters. The group has maintained that Measure 11 is effective and that Oregon’s juvenile crime rate for Measure 11 offenses is well below the national average for the same offenses.
The organization also has pointed out that sex crimes and robbery make up the majority of juvenile offenders in state custody.
Beth Heckert, district attorney for Jackson County and president of the association, said some provisions in the bill represent “drastic changes” to the mandatory minimum sentencing law.
“Our biggest point is it changes what the voters voted on and so it should be sent back to them to make those changes,” she said.
Prozanski said Measure 10, also passed in 1994, allows the Legislature to make changes to voter-approved sentencing laws like Measure 11. Those changes require a two-thirds majority.
He acknowledged the District Attorneys Association’s objections when he talked about the bill on the Senate floor, but he chided prosecutors for failing to offer much feedback about the proposed changes until late last month. He said the process for drafting the provisions that ended up in Senate Bill 1008 began in early 2018.
He said representatives of the District Attorneys Association attended those meetings. “They never gave any feedback until the very last meeting,” he said.
— Noelle Crombie
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