Marion County Courthouse.

Local district attorneys are concerned about the potential erosion of Oregon’s landmark anti-crime law that imposes hefty prison terms on people convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape. But proponents of a change being sought in the upcoming legislative session say every crime and victim are different and sentencing should reflect that.

Passed by voters in response to the 1990s high crime rates, Measure 11 imposes mandatory minimum sentencing for several crimes that cannot be reduced, and prisoners cannot be paroled before finishing their minimum sentence.

Murder carries the longest sentence at 25 years. Those convicted of first-degree assault, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery and first-degree arson face seven-and-a-half-year prison terms.

But Measure 11 has since come under scrutiny for filling prisons and leaving thousands with felony records.

Over the last decade, lawmakers have softened Measure 11, passed in 1994. Last year, the Legislature eased penalties for juvenile offenders and limited life without parole for children under 18.

Paige Clarkson, Marion County district attorney, anticipates the Legislature will seek to reduce sentence lengths when it meets next month. Lawmakers haven’t released any details about plans for reform, but both prosecutors and criminal justice reform advocates are expecting legislation reworking Measure 11.

She said Measure 11 created a more equitable system because the sentencing doesn’t consider someone’s race, gender or socioeconomic status when determining their sentence.

“This is a necessary tool for public safety,” she said. “It would be a mistake for us to haphazardly reverse the will of the voters.”

Shannon Wight, deputy director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said the circumstances of every crime is different and the range of conduct is so varied. Her organization is one of the groups seeking reform next year.

She said the criminal justice system was originally set up for judges to issue sentences that consider the individual circumstances of each crime. That way defendants are held accountable in a way that makes sense for them.

“Mandatory sentences are a one-size-fits-all approach to that as opposed to the more complicated ways crime plays out in our lives,” she said.

‘All for accountability’

Wight said the current system doesn’t ask victims what kind of justice they would like to see.

“No one is asking: ‘What do you need to put your life back together?’” she said. “We’ve been so focused on accountability just looking like a prison sentence.”

Wight said crimes often occur between people who know each other. If the victim wants their perpetrator to get help rather than a prison term, they might be reluctant to report the crime if they know it carries a mandatory sentence under state law, she said. That can be especially true in communities of color, said Wright.

She referenced a report published by her organization that found most of the survivors of color interviewed didn’t report crimes they experienced out of fear they wouldn’t be believed or would be harmed further by police.

“A lot of folks just don’t report. And that is not justice,” she said.

Wight said the findings from her group’s  report aligns with a national survey that found victims prefer rehabilitation over punishment. The national survey also found that victims would rather see investments in crime prevention and treatment over increased spending on prisons and jails.

Antoinette Edwards, retired director of Portland’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention, said the current system is “one strike” and doesn’t consider the development of young people.

“I’m all for accountability. From a social justice lens, the disproportionality is screaming. That’s a real issue,” she said.

Edwards said race plays a factor. Even though sentences are equal under Measure 11, not everyone is charged, she said.         

Black people make up about one in 10 of all Measure 11 indictments, and one in five indictments for second-degree robbery and attempted murder, a 2011 analysis by the state Criminal Justice Commission found. That’s despite only accounting for 2% of Oregon’s population, according to the most recent Census data.

‘It allows them to feel that there is justice’

Prosecutors say Measure 11 is more likely to deliver justice for victims of serious crimes.

Susana Escobedo, director of the Marion County Victim Assistance Division, said it’s important for victims to have certainty in sentencing. She said it’s often the most heinous crimes that are sentenced under Measure 11 and the terms give victims a sense of security.

She said that victims are able to focus on moving on if they know that the perpetrator is going to be incarcerated.

“It allows them to feel that there is justice in what happened to them,” she said.

Aaron Felton, Polk County district attorney, said Measure 11 was put before the voters because different sentences for the same crime were being doled out in different parts of the state. He said the sentencing guidelines create a baseline for consistency throughout the state.  

He also said if there are considerations about reducing sentencing, there should also be conversations about increasing sentences for certain crimes.

On Dec. 16, the Oregon District Attorney’s Association released a survey done by Fallon Research that polled Oregonians on their attitudes toward Measure 11.

SURVEY: Minimum sentencing survey

More than half of respondents said they had a favorable view of Measure 11 and about the same percentage said they opposed the Legislature reducing sentences.

But half said they would support reducing sentences for lower-level assaults and robberies which carry a nearly six-year prison term. 

“My fundamental concern is that anything related to Measure 11 really ought to go to the voters,” Felton said. “I don’t think it’s something that is appropriate to be handled by the Legislature.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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