Oregonians missed a chance to reform Ballot Measure 11 this legislative session. Budget writers hoped to hold the prison population near 14,000 saving enough money to kick $32 million to counties so they could invest in community corrections. The vehicle was House Bill 3194 which would have removed mandatory minimum sentences of 70 months or more for first -degree sex abuse, second-degree robbery and second-degree assault, as well as giving Judges more discretion on certain property crimes and drug offenses.
Ballot measure 11 was passed in response to a perception that Oregon Judges were being too lenient in sentencing. Many critics, this writer included, feel that Measure 11 took too much discretion from Judges and shifted the burden of persuasion to the District Attorneys. In the old days my job was to humanize my clients to a Judge, ask for leniency and justice. Now that pitch must be made, if at all, to a prosecutor with pretty much unlimited charging discretion. A defendant’s lack of prior criminal activity, age, and other mitigating factors are not generally considered relevant to a Measure 11 sentence.
The effort at reform was defeated by the Governor and the District Attorneys at the last minute and any meaningful reform will have to wait. Nationwide, harsh mandatory sentences are being repealed based on economic considerations, although the battles with the prison-industry complex and hash on crime politicians are sometimes bitter. The advances in social science research now open the possibility of meaningful community supervision and crime reduction but as usual the legal system is slow to catch up with scientific research on biochemistry and mental illness.
These much-needed reforms will come for economic reasons, just as marijuana reform is coming based on economic arguments. We must fight for more judicial discretion and treatment of offenders as human beings, not monsters. Many of the parents of my clients voted for Measure 11 with no idea that when their child is facing such a charge there is little or no justice or mercy. I urge you to join FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) and help fight this good fight.