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youth in prison
Saundra Sorensen
Published: 11 April 2019

The Oregon legislature is considering an ambitious bill to reform juvenile justice, and to mitigate mandatory minimum sentencing for youth offenders under Measure 11.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 28 alongside Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Salem) and Sen. James I. Manning, Jr. (D-Eugene) to voice her support for the four Senate bills that were later merged as SB 1008 during an April 8 work session.

“As we learn more about the fluid nature of neurological development in our adolescents, and as our science continually improves, it is only proper that we use this new information to critically question the accuracy of long-held assumptions about culpability, reformation, and the capacity of our youth for self-betterment, even in the most adverse of circumstances,” Rosenblum told the committee.

The Problem with Adolescents Charged as Adults

Sen. Winters praised the sweeping sentencing reforms accomplished by HB 3194 in 2013, but said, “We left the juvies out.”

Winters criticized “the issue of juvies having had the training and the investment that we make at (Oregon Youth Authority), only to be sent to the (Department of Corrections) to learn how to be a better criminal.”

“What you do at 13 is not the same as where your brain is when you’re 20, 21, 22,” Winters said. “So colleagues: I came this morning asking you to join me and others who actually believe that it’s time for Oregon to actually do the reforms for juveniles.”

To that end, Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at OHSU, gave expert testimony in support of the bills, outlining the cognitive differences between adults and adolescents.

"Adolescents are not big kids or small adults,” Jetmalani said. “Their neuropsychological functions are unique, and we should consider this deeply when implementing clinical, educational and judicial policy."

Each of the four bills challenged the idea that adolescents should ever be charged and sentenced as adults.

An Additional Review

Senate Bill 966 would trigger an additional review before an inmate is transferred from the Oregon Youth Authority to an adult prison -- which would allow a judge to decide whether that individual is eligible to serve out the rest of the sentence under community supervision, rather than behind bars. Currently, anyone who is sentenced for an offense committed before the age of 18 remains in OYA custody until the age of 25.

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David Rogers, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, argues that this opportunity can make all the difference between rehabilitation and recidivism.

“What we know is that the Oregon Youth Authority has actually done a really good job of making a bunch of youth-appropriate programming education and treatment programs available for young people,” Rogers told The Skanner. “It’s a place where young people can actually really do the hard work to turn their lives around. All that work gets lost when we transfer them to adult prison -- it’s a fundamentally different environment, and at that point, young people lose a lot of the progress that has been made, and (the focus becomes) about survival.”

Limit Life Sentences

SB 968 would essentially limit life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenders convicted for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18. The bill would trigger a parole hearing when the individual has served 15 years of the sentence.

Curbing Mandatory Adult Prosecution

SB 969 would eliminate the practice of mandatory adult prosecution for minors in a number of charges -- and would require additional hearings to allow adult prosecution of juveniles, on a by-case basis.

“This bill would say that the default placement for youth should always be the juvenile justice system,” Rogers said. “A study by the Centers for Disease Control found that youth who are put into the adult system are 34 percent more likely to commit crimes when they return to the community.”

SB 1008 would make anyone sentenced as a juvenile offender, and sentenced under Measure 11, eligible for for a “second look” hearing after at least a third of the sentence has been completed. This allows individuals to present evidence of positive transformation, and to argue that they can be rehabilitated.

A recent ACLU-commissioned poll found that a bipartisan majority of Oregonians supported youth justice reform.

In supporting the bill package, Manning told the Senate Committee that his experience as a corrections officer had convinced him of the need for reform.

“I have seen firsthand what it’s like when a youth is confined to an adult facility,” he said. “To have an opportunity for a second look, I think it's very necessary to include even a third look.”

“We missed it in 2013,” Winters said, “so let’s not miss it this session. Let us go forward. I don’t want to leave out the victims, because they too are a part of this. They too need to be a part of the work that’s being done, and the restoration that needs to be healed. I implore you to join me and others in this building who say it’s time, that we cannot continue to delay the inevitable, and that we will get it right this session.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved SB 1008 4-3 during its April 8 work session.

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