Judge bars parole board from reconsidering sentences for youth offenders under governor’s plan

(Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A Marion County Circuit Court judge Tuesday ordered the state’s parole board not to hold hearings to consider early release of dozens of Oregonians for crimes they committed as minors.

The ruling is a setback for a plan Gov. Kate Brown announced in October as part of a broader effort to shift the state’s criminal justice system toward rehabilitating youth, instead of lengthy and costly prison sentences.

The ruling blocked one of two groups of juvenile offenders from having their sentences commuted under criteria Brown made public in October, concluding six weeks of litigation over the commutation plan. 

Brown at the time commuted the sentences of more than 70 people, including 18 sentenced in Marion County and two in Polk County, who have served at least 15 years of their sentence for a crime committed when they were under 18, including murder and rape.

The governor’s office said at the time that the Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision would hold hearings to decide whether to grant early release.

But the board, according to Judge David Leith’s order, doesn’t have that authority. 

The governor’s office said in October that Brown intended to use her clemency powers to individually consider people for commutation who were sentenced for crimes committed as youth before the passage of SB 1008 in 2019, which allowed judges more discretion in sentencing minors convicted of crimes. The legislation was intended to keep young offenders in the juvenile system, which focuses on rehabilitation.

Leith on Tuesday ordered the parole board to not hold any release hearing or release any offender who was found guilty of a crime committed as a minor before the bill was passed.

Liz Merah, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said Thursday that the state is appealing the ruling.

The judge’s ruling came after Linn County District Attorney Douglas Marteeny, Lane County District Attorney Patricia Perlow and four victims sued Brown and other state officials, seeking a judge’s order to suspend the “illegal sentence reductions” Brown intended to carry out, according to a petition filed Jan. 18 in Marion County Circuit Court.

Leith rejected most claims in the lawsuit, including that the commutations would require an application from the offender and victim input, and that Brown illegally gave clemency powers to the state Department of Corrections and Oregon Youth Authority by granting commutations based on lists she sought from the agencies.

Regarding the judge’s ruling that the parole board lacked the authority to hold hearings for the over 70 people granted clemency, Merah said, “Our office continues to review and evaluate our legal options, and the state has filed a notice of appeal.”

Those people in custody are now left to continue serving their original sentences, though Brown still has the authority to personally choose who gets clemency.

“The Governor is pleased the court’s letter opinion has affirmed that her use of clemency powers was within her authority and upheld every single commutation granted to date, impacting almost 1,200 individuals,” Merah said in an email. “The Governor continues to believe that executive clemency is an important tool that can be used to address systemic failures in our criminal justice system while we work to make lasting change, and she will continue to exercise her clemency authority in, for example, cases of extraordinary transformation to give people the opportunity to become positive, contributing members of their communities.”

In response to a request for comment on the ruling, Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson referred to a declaration she filed Feb. 23 in the civil case.Clarkson and Clackamas County District Attorney John Wentworth filed declarations supporting an order to suspend the sentence reductions Brown planned, though they were not parties to the lawsuit.

“When the Governor acts outside the clemency process and law, the disruption to the lives of victims is significant and their faith in our criminal justice process is rightly shaken,” she wrote in the declaration. Most of these victims never expected their offenders to be released early, in some cases years sooner than the court’s sentence promised. They report to me that they feel scared and mistrustful towards a criminal justice system that has now betrayed them,” the declaration said.

Clarkson said in the declaration that she doesn’t believe any injustice was done through the original sentences. “Quite the opposite,” she said. “Justice was done in each conviction that my prosecutors, and the public safety system as a whole, worked so hard to ensure. I am in awe of the victims who bravely came forward to share their stories, navigate the criminal justice system and tell the painful truth to hold their abusers accountable.”

Merah said since the judge ruled Brown has clemency power and upheld every commutation granted to date, the governor’s office will continue processing clemency applications from incarcerated people.

Brown’s initial commutation plan covered two groups of Oregonians currently serving prison sentences for crimes committed as minors. In addition to those previously slated for parole hearings, Merah said in October that Brown was considering about 214 additional people for early release who have served at least half of their sentence for crimes committed as juveniles. The list includes about 36 people sentenced in Marion and Polk counties who weren’t on the list for parole hearings.

“The court’s decision did not impact the Governor’s ability to consider clemency applications for individuals in this group. In fact, the court re-affirmed her ability to do so,” Merah said.

If a person in the larger group not impacted by Leith’s ruling submits an application, Merah said the governor’s office will individually review it to determine whether they’ve made “exemplary progress and there is considerable evidence of rehabilitation,” taking into account input from the district attorney and any victims. 

The governor’s office expects around two-thirds of the group will apply for commutation and get a case-by-case review, she said.

“Governor Brown believes that granting clemency is an extraordinary act that is generally reserved for individuals who have made incredible changes and who are dedicated to making their communities better,” she said, “which is why the vast majority of clemency applications are denied.”


Dozens convicted in Marion, Polk counties for crimes committed as minors may soon be out of prison

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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