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Bill To Alter Juvenile Sentencing Rules In Oregon Cleared For Final Vote

<p>Republican Oregon state Sen. Jackie Winters listens as her fellow senators speak in the Oregon Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.</p>

Bryan M. Vance/OPB

Republican Oregon state Sen. Jackie Winters listens as her fellow senators speak in the Oregon Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

UPDATE (Wednesday, May 22, 2019 at 9:25 a.m. PT) — A sweeping bill to change how young offenders are treated in Oregon’s justice system has cleared another hurdle, setting the stage for what could be a tight vote.

Senate Bill 1008 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday on a 6-5 vote, with one Democrat joining the committee’s four Republicans in opposition. The bill has emerged as perhaps the key criminal justice bill of the legislative session and has scrambled some of the Capitol’s usual battle lines.

In broad strokes, SB 1008 would alter some of the provisions of Measure 11, a 1994 ballot measure that included mandatory sentences for certain serious crimes. The measure included a provision that juveniles 15 or older be tried automatically as adults for offenses such as murder, kidnapping and rape.

SB 1008 would walk back some of those voter-approved requirements. It would let judges decide on a case-by-case basis whether juveniles are tried as adults and make it impossible for young offenders to be sentenced to life without parole.

The bill would also make serious juvenile offenders eligible for a parole hearing after serving half their sentence. And it would ensure young defendants are put in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority if they commit a crime before they turning 18, even if they are convicted after their eighteenth birthday.

The bill has support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and backing from justice officials including Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters. Proponents cite science that suggests human brains aren’t fully developed until at least the age of 20.

But SB 1008 has received  increasingly strong pushback from the state’s district attorneys, who have said that voters should be the ones to decide on potential changes to Measure 11.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association met this week with members of the House Judiciary Committee to press its case, and prosecutors succeeded in getting one Republican lawmaker to submit amendments on their behalf. Those changes included a referral to voters. They were rejected Tuesday.

“I am not supportive of this amendment,” House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said in the committee hearing. “There are times when putting people’s rights to a vote of the people is not a wise move.”

Other Democrats on the committee expressed their support for the bill in strong terms.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, said he’d prefer juveniles not be subject to Measure 11 at all, but that “this is a darn good bill. It moves some very important pieces.”

In her comments, Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, invoked Republican Sen. Jackie Winters. Winters has been a chief proponent of the bill and has had to step away from the Capitol as she battles cancer. Like Bynum, Winters is also the only black woman in the chamber in which she serves.

“It’s important for our community to stop this cycle of incarceration, overcharging — the re-enslavement of black people in this state and this country,” Bynum said. “I’m proud of Sen. Winters’ work, I am happy to carry this torch for her on this side, and I wish she could be here.”

Winters’ passion for the bill may be a central reason why it has a chance of passage at all. In order to alter voter-approved sentencing laws, two-thirds of all lawmakers must approve the bill.

In the Senate, just three Republicans — including Winters — crossed the aisle to reach that total. Senate Republicans have since signaled that getting SB 1008 passed is a priority for them, a nod to Winters.

The bill needs 40 votes to pass the House, and Democrats will need support from at least three Republicans to get there. Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, is widely expected to vote against SB 1008. The former Oregon state trooper and Portland Police lieutenant voted against the changes in committee. 

In committee on Tuesday, Republicans expressed support for some aspects of the bill, even as all voted against it.

Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said there are “many parts” of the bill that he supports, and that he believes portions of Measure 11 haven’t worked.

“We can get a better bill,” McLane said. “We can get a bill that can produce consensus all across the board, including with the district attorneys.”

Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, decried what she called a bad process.

“It’s really sad that this bill sits here today, by and large, a partisan vote,” Sprenger said.

It’s unclear when the Measure 11 changes might get a vote in the full House, where work has slowed to a glacial pace as Republicans insist bills be read in full before a final vote.

Gov. Kate Brown “actively looks forward to signing it,” her office said.

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.