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In Tight Vote, Oregon Senators Move Toward More Leniency For Juveniles

In order to pass the Oregon Senate, a bill to scale back strict mandatory sentences on juvenile offenders needed to meet a steep threshold: two-thirds of senators’ support in a 30-person chamber where Republicans hold 12 seats.

And in a dramatic vote that appeared uncertain until the very end, Senate Bill 1008 had just enough to pass. Three Republicans joined 17 Democrats to approve the bill by a razor-thin margin of 20-10. It now moves to the House.

The bill, the culmination of nearly a year’s work, was actually a collection of five individual billssubmitted earlier this year to adjust juvenile sentencing laws. Among its provisions, the bill:

Scraps voter-approved provisions that require some youth who commit serious crimes to be tried as adults, instead leaving that decision to a judge. Crimes for which juveniles 15 or older currently must be tried as adults include murder, sex offenses, kidnapping and arson.

Allows juvenile offenders scheduled to be released before their 27th birthday to be released when they turn 25, rather than being switched from the Oregon Youth Authority to the adult Department of Corrections.

Creates new provisions for when serious juvenile offenders are eligible for conditional release.

Ensures that people who commit crimes before they are 18, but aren’t sentenced until they turn 19, can be put into custody of the Oregon Youth Authority.

Those proposals had backing from a wide array of justice officials, including Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters and Oregon Youth Authority Director Joe O’Leary. Gov. Kate Brown is also in favor.

Oregon lawmakers have for years worked to scale back certain sentencing laws for adults, but had not put a focus on juveniles. Part of that was due to the high hurdle those changes faced. Because voters approved mandatory juvenile sentences for certain serious crimes in 1994’s Ballot Measure 11, they require the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber to be changed.

This year, legislative leaders decided to take a crack at those provisions. Advocates cite an improved understanding of brain science that shows people's brains aren't fully developed until they're at least 20. The ACLU of Oregon commissioned polling that suggested broad support for the changes among Oregon voters.

Democrats also hold supermajorities in both chambers after the 2018 election, which is not to say there wasn’t bipartisan support for SB 1008.

State Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, has had a decadeslong interest in sentencing issues and was perhaps the bill’s strongest champion in the chamber.

In a floor speech, the 82-year-old remembered her late husband, Marc “Ted” Winters, who was sentenced to prison as a 17-year-old, well before they met. He went on to work for two Oregon governors.

“He would tell you that the Department of Corrections is no place for a juvenile,” Winters said. “He would also tell you that rather than getting an education where you actually have hope, just the reverse occurs. You are teaching the individual, particularly juveniles, how to be better criminals.”

Senate President Peter Courtney temporarily surrendered his gavel to give a speech from the floor. He recounted a youth filled with what he characterized as delinquency, saying his life could have easily gone awry if his superiors hadn’t given him a second chance.

“I had a temper,” Courtney said. “When I was young, there’s no doubt I was involved in some things that, had there been a Ballot Measure 11, I would be incarcerated. Violent fist fights, and it was really very bad.”

The crucial difference, Courtney said several times, was his being told early in life, “Peter, I have not given up on you, but boy, do I expect more of you.”

“If that hadn’t been said, I wouldn’t be here today,” Courtney said, saying he wouldn’t go into details. “I’ve been wanting to take this vote for a long, long time.”

Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, added to the tally of Republicans supporting the bill, saying on the floor: “These aren’t outlandish reforms. These are very modest. This allows prudence and judgment.”

Only Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, spoke against the measure.

“What about the victims?” he asked. “A murder victim. Do they get a second chance? Does their family get a second chance?”

Detractors of the bill, including the Oregon District Attorneys Association and Kevin Mannix, the former state representative and architect of Measure 11, argued the changes should be left up to voters. But voters, when they passed Measure 11, also approved a provisionallowing lawmakers to alter voter-approved sentencing rules with two-thirds support.

SB 1008’s supporters needed every vote to get the bill out of the Senate on Tuesday — and its passage came down to a dramatic finish. As the clerk took a voice vote of senators, all Democrats except for Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, voted yes. Most Republicans voted no.

But state Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, didn’t initially vote when his name was called. Instead, he stared fixedly at the floor. Only when all other votes had been cast, and the bill stood at 19-10, did Heard cast his deciding yes vote.

He declined to discuss his decision after the hearing. Senate Republicans had expected him to support the bill all along.

SB 1008 also inspired some minor drama Monday, when the Oregon Department of Justice's district attorney resource coordinator, Michelle Long, sent state senators an email from her public work account with an attachment from the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

The document was titled “Oregon District Attorneys Urge No Vote on SB 1008” and went on to list reasons lawmakers should vote no.

Long’s email led to questions from senators and supporters of the bill about use of public resources — particularly since her boss, Attorney General Rosenblum, supported the legislation. Later in the day, Deputy Attorney General Fred Boss sent senators a follow-up email, apologizing.

“DOJ did not authorize the use of email or work time to send the message,” Boss wrote. “Please be assured we are addressing the issue and it will not happen again.”

Following the vote Tuesday, lawmakers hugged on the Senate floor. Many gravitated to the desk of Winters, the bill's central champion, who made her way out of the chamber shortly after.

Before leaving, though, Winters stopped by the desk of Linthicum, one of two other Republicans to support her bill.

“All right, Dennis,” she said. “I get my hug.”

<p>State Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, on the Senate floor Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Heard cast the deciding vote on a slate of bills to grant more leniency to juvenile offenders.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


State Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, on the Senate floor Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Heard cast the deciding vote on a slate of bills to grant more leniency to juvenile offenders.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.