SALEM -- With Democrats now in charge of the Legislature, lawmakers may try to soften a 1994 get-tough-on-crime law in a way that would allow the early release of juvenile offenders charged with murder, kidnapping and other serious crimes.
The proposal is drawing flak from crime victim advocates and Oregon's district attorneys, who say voters meant it when they adopted Measure 11 in 1994.
But some legislators and advocacy groups say they think the public is ready for a second look at whether the law is cost-effective and the best way to rehabilitate young offenders.
Measure 11 requires judges to sentence people convicted of serious crimes, including young offenders, to fixed prison terms with no possibility of parole or probation.
The House and Senate judiciary committees recently conducted public hearings on measures to revise sentencing procedures for 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit the most serious crimes such as murder, assault, robbery or kidnapping.
The House measure would give those youths a chance to go before a judge for a "second look" after they have served half of their sentences. Judges could grant youths release to serve the remainder of their sentences under post-prison supervision if it can be proved that they have made significant progress while incarcerated.
"I think the public, if you asked them, would be OK with giving juveniles a `second look,' " said Rep. Chip Shields, D-Portland. "Most people realize that 15- to 17-year-olds should be dealt with differently than 25-year-old hardened criminals."
Under the Senate measure, youths would receive pretrial hearings in adult court in which judges would determine whether trying the case in juvenile court or adult court would be best suited to protect public safety while promoting rehabilitation.
Among those who testified in favor of the bills was Sheila Montgomery, whose son Zack was convicted of aiding and abetting an armed robbery of a convenience store when he was 15 and was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years.
Zack, now 17, has served two years at the North Coast Youth Correctional Facility in Warrenton. Because of publicity surrounding his case, the district attorney recently agreed to offer Zack a deal in which he will receive conditional release after three years, Montgomery said.
Still, Montgomery said, being tried and convicted as an adult felon will stigmatize her son and make it tough for him to get a job, go to school or join the military.
"In Zack's case, he's going to be forever labeled as an adult felon," Montgomery said. "He made a mistake when he was 15, but the way this is set up, he's going to pay for this all his life."
A key lawmaker, Sen. Ginny Burdick, said it's "no coincidence" that the Measure 11 issue is being given a higher profile now that Democrats are in charge of both the House and the Senate for the first time in 16 years.
Burdick, who is chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it's doubtful that legislation will pass this session, since it would require a supermajority of lawmakers in both chambers to revise Measure 11.
Still, she said Democrats -- as well as some Republicans -- believe the time has come to begin a serious, long-term look at the effectiveness of the state's laws aimed at deterring crime, including Measure 11's provisions dealing with juvenile offenders.
"Some of these juveniles are very, very dangerous, and some do need to go away for a very long time," the Portland Democrat said. "But the question is, do all of them need to? In my opinion, we are sacrificing some young lives that we don't have to."
About 50 youths are sentenced each year under Measure 11, according to state figures.
Kevin Neely, spokesman for the Oregon District Attorneys Association, said the group will "vigorously oppose" the rewrite of a measure that was overwhelmingly approved by voters and which has been credited with helping to bring down Oregon's violent crime rate.
"The problem with these two bills is that they undermine the core value of truth-in-sentencing," Neely said. "The sentence that the judge imposes must be the sentence that the offender serves."
The second-look bill, in particular, is drawing opposition from Steve Doell of Crime Victims United. He said crime victims would have to endure years of uncertainty about whether the criminal would be released, followed by a painful hearing on the possible release.
"Do we really want to say to a victim, 'The guy who left your relative brain damaged, we're going to bring him back after he has served half that sentence to determine whether he will serve the full term or not,'" Doell said.
However, the head of an advocacy group called Partnership for Safety and Justice said juveniles are "far from fully mature" in mental and emotional development, and that it's wrong to handle their cases in adult courts.
"We need to think carefully before abandoning the future of young people with long adult sentences," said David Rogers, executive director of the Portland-based group.
--The Associated Press