The Oregon State Penitentiary on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Dozens of Oregonians serving prison sentences for crimes committed as minors may soon be eligible for early release based on new criteria set by Gov. Kate Brown.

About 36 people convicted in Marion and Polk counties may be eligible for conditional release, while another 20 will be granted parole hearings, according to the commutation list Salem Reporter obtained from the governor’s office this week.

Brown’s office wrote in a statement that she believes more of an emphasis is needed on preventing crime and rehabilitating youth rather than harsh punishments and lengthy, costly prison sentences.

“We can no longer rely solely on imprisonment as the only solution,” said Liz Merah, spokesperson for the governor’s office, in an email.

The announcement comes after the passage of SB 1008 in 2019, which allowed judges more discretion in sentencing minors convicted of crimes and was intended to keep young offenders in the juvenile system, which focuses on rehabilitation.

Though the law wasn’t retroactive, Merah said the governor “intends to use her constitutional clemency powers to consider youth—on an individualized basis—who didn’t benefit from that legislation.”

Merah said Oregon’s criminal justice system too often doesn’t take into account that adolescent brains are still growing and developing, especially in regard to reasoning, planning and self-regulation. 

Merah said Measure 11, a 1994 ballot measure that brought stiff sentences for serious crimes, in particular has removed many routes for young people to show their capacity for positive change. Most of the young people included in the plan were originally sentenced under Measure 11, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

Brown’s action covers two groups of Oregonians currently serving prison sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.

This week, she commuted the sentences of 74 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 as a juvenile.

Their commutation will take effect in 45 days, the earliest possible date that the Parole Board could schedule a hearing, where the Parole Board ultimately decides the outcome and whether those who were convicted get conditional release, Merah said. Victims and their families will be notified and be able to participate in hearings.

Brown is considering about 214 additional people who have served at least half of their sentence for crimes committed as juveniles for conditional release. The list includes about 36 people sentenced in Marion and Polk counties who weren’t on the commutation list.

The crimes they were convicted of include murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, rape, sodomy, sex abuse, first- and second-degree assault, robbery, attempted robbery and arson, with two originally sentenced to life in prison.

The ages at the time of the crime in both groups range from 15 to 17.

The governor’s office will review those people to determine whether they have made “exemplary progress and if there is considerable evidence of rehabilitation,” Merah said, as well as considering any input from the district attorney and victims to decide whether commutation is warranted.

“We anticipate that these reviews will occur throughout the next several months,” Merah wrote in an email. “The earliest the governor would make any decisions on conditional releases would likely be in December or January, and the process will continue until a final decision has been made on each case.”

Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson wrote in an email that her office is still reviewing the list “for the significant implications for victims and their families.”

“Just as it is (every day) for prosecutors, our primary concern is for victims of crime. And that is especially true on days like today when the trust they have placed in the entire criminal justice system is undermined with a single decision by one person,” she wrote. “Before I comment on any specific case, we owe to the victims a more thorough review of these circumstances, the likely next steps in this process and any safety planning that they may need to accomplish.”

Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton said he did not want to express an opinion on the governor’s decision on commutation but was concerned by how quickly it became a reality with little notice.

“For it to happen so suddenly, with no opportunity to have some warning that this may happen and process that, we think that's very traumatic to a victim and to a family member of someone who was a victim of a crime,” Felton said. “I think that is not the kind of process in terms of a partnership with our partners that I want to go forward with, so I think that's frustrating.”

Felton said his office now has to contact victim’s families to tell them about the commutation plan and what the next steps are.

“I don't disagree with clemency being made available for people who are serving time and if I looked at every single juvenile who is a candidate for this process, I think there would probably be individuals there who I would probably agree deserve a second look,” he said. “I'm not anti-commutation or anti-second look for juveniles at all. I think where I'm sensing frustration is that this process could have been more transparent and more victim-friendly where we could have worked together with the governor's office.”

Sandy Chung, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the organization supports Brown commuting the prison sentences of people who committed crimes as youth.

“The criminal justice process should be an opportunity for restorative justice for survivors of crime and those who committed crime. It should not be used to impose punishment simply for the sake of punishment, especially when that approach has failed to make our communities whole or safe.” 

Chung said the “tough-on-crime” approach brought by Measure 11 “disproportionately devastated our most marginalized and vulnerable communities,” including Black and Indigenous people, people of color and low-income Oregonians.

“Treating youth as adults in the criminal justice system is ineffective at teaching young people how to be healthy members of society and often costs considerably more than community alternatives that have been proven to be more effective,” she said. “As well, this approach leads to less safety for our communities because incarceration leads to a higher risk that youth will reoffend as adults.”

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

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!