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Oregon Legislature Passes Sweeping Changes To Juvenile Sentencing Rules

<p>State Reps. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, talk on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, April 11, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

State Reps. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, talk on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, April 11, 2019.

The Oregon House of Representatives on Thursday passed sweeping changes to sentencing rules for juvenile offenders, a dramatic shift to tough-on-crime guidelines voters approved 25 years ago.

In a tight vote — held earlier than expected due to a speed-up maneuver by House leadership — representatives voted 40-18 for Senate Bill 1008, the bare minimum required to pass it.

Before the vote, representatives first shot down two alternative “minority report” proposals floated by Republicans — one to modify the bill and refer it to voters, the other simply to refer it to voters. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown, who will sign it.

“Our juvenile system creates a class of people who reoffend at a higher rate,” said state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, a central backer of the sentencing changes. “It targets our communities of color. My question is, ‘What is our responsibility knowing that?’”

SB 1008 eases rules voters adopted in 1994’s Ballot Measure 11, which set mandatory minimum sentences for a collection of serious crimes.

Among its most weighty changes, the bill will ensure that juveniles 15 years of age and older aren’t automatically tried as adults for major crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping. Instead, judges will be able to decide on an individual basis whether a defendant is tried as an adult.

The bill also ensures young offenders aren’t sentenced to life without parole, makes them eligible for a parole hearing after serving half their sentence and creates a new pathway for certain defendants to secure early release rather than being transferred to the adult prison system.

After minimal discussion earlier in this legislative session, SB 1008 had become one of the more contentious criminal justice bills moving through the Legislature. It was the product of more than a year’s effort by a legislative workgroup.

The changes have support from a far-ranging swath of organizations — the ACLU of Oregon and Koch Industries are both behind it — but also from retired judges, prison guards, the Oregon Department of Corrections and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. The support has roots in science that shows juveniles don’t have fully developed decision-making ability and concerns that funneling young offenders to the adult prison system creates hardened criminals.

“As people who have worked with these youth, we know firsthand that a majority of them — when given the opportunities, support and guidance — have the capacity to grow and become productive members of our communities,” representatives from the prison guards’ union wrote the Oregon House.

SB 1008 was high-profile enough that it was sped up by House leadership for a vote in an unusual evening session Thursday, a move that required support for rules to be suspended. It also got a nod from Republicans; they've been working to slow down action in the House for several weeks, but in this case GOP members agreed to waive a requirement that the 33-page bill be read in full prior to a vote. 

Still, the bill is contentious. It rankled prosecutors, who didn’t want judges to have sole discretion on which juvenile defendants were tried as adults. They argued the legislation should be changed.

"There is broad consensus that we have to change Measure 11 for youth,” said state Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who put forth a substitute bill on behalf of the Oregon District Attorneys Association. “How to do it reasonable people disagree.”

Opponents also argued that the bill should go before Oregon voters, since they approved Measure 11 in the first place. But the bill’s backers pointed out that, the same year Measure 11 passed, voters also approved Measure 10, which allowed lawmakers to alter the rules if they secured a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.

Representatives who spoke against the bill expressed support for the overall concept, but said it was too lax, and that the worst-of-the-worst young criminals should not have the opportunity of being tried as juveniles.

“Let’s take the time,” said Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles. “Let’s carve out the most violent cases. Let’s figure out that sweet spot.”

In the end, 36 of the House’s 38 Democrats went along with the bill. They were joined by four Republicans.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, was one of those “yes” votes. He spoke on the floor about his time working at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.

“I had a chance to work with these youths every single day,” Smith said. “Here’s the reality: They’re kids. They’re kids who made a mistake.”

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, also spoke, recounting how she’d bought her 15-year-old son his first suit this year.

“I got a little teary eyed,” said Bynum, the only black lawmaker in the House. “I realized he was transitioning into a grown-up world that was waiting to receive him. I hope that as he goes forward he makes the right decision every single time, because there’s a prison bed waiting for him.”

Thursday's vote was reminiscent of the Senate vote on SB 1008, which also secured the bare minimum votes to pass. The bill is a high priority of Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, who is away from the Capitol due to a battle with cancer. Some Republicans have viewed its passage as a tribute to her.

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.