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Oregon governor grants review hearing for some of state’s longest serving juvenile offenders

Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, May 19, 2021
Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, May 19, 2021

Gov. Kate Brown has granted more than 70 adults in custody who committed crimes as juveniles the opportunity to argue for their release before the state's parole board after 15 years in prison. Some are charged with crimes like murder, assault and manslaughter.

In an order signed Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of more than 70 prisoners who committed crimes as juveniles, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re about to walk out of prison.

The governor’s commutations grant some adults in custody who committed serious crimes as juveniles the opportunity to appear before the Oregon State Board of Parole and Post Prison Supervision to argue for their release after 15 years in prison.

The list includes people convicted between 1988 and 2019 for crimes such as murder, assault, rape and manslaughter while they were younger than 18.

The Oregon Legislature passed a bill in 2019 that enacted changes to the state’s juvenile justice system and mandatory minimum sentences. Those changes apply to juveniles sentenced on or after Jan. 1, 2020.

While the legislation was not retroactive, Brown’s commutations effectively apply part of Senate Bill 1008 — known as a second look hearing — to the list of 70 people currently in prison.

In a series of rulings during the last decade and a half, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted recent research about juveniles and found they must be treated differently by the criminal justice system, in part, because their brains aren’t fully developed at the time when alleged crimes occur.

The governor’s signed order notes “these individuals — initially incarcerated as youth ― are capable of tremendous transformation and, due to the age and immaturity at the time of their offenses and behavior thereafter, should be able to petition for release.”

The Oregon District Attorneys Association didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

“This list represents dangerous individuals who were appropriately sentenced,” Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said in a statement. “Our immediate priorities are to assess the impact of mass commutations on community and victim safety and to ensure the victims of these crimes are informed of the possible release and have an opportunity to have meaningful input in the process.”

Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, called the governor’s use of commutations “unprecedented.”

“The takeaway from what the governor did here is, if we believe that brain science tells us that youth are capable of transformation and rehabilitation, they all do deserve the opportunity to prove that before the parole board, just like 1008 allows them to move forward,” Kaplan said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.