When Shataria Wells and Bobbie Greene first got selected for the Citizens Initiative Review, they both said they would vote for Measure 73, a law that would create mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain repeat sex offenses and drunk driving convictions.
After a week of testimony by proponents and opponents and a review of other information about the possible effects and costs of the measure, Wells had changed her mind; Greene had not.
The women were two of three African Americans – although Wells says she is half Caucasian— who were a part of the Citizens Jury process, which is creating a system for Oregonians to analyze the benefits and costs of citizens initiatives.
Wells, 26, says she learned a lot during her week in Salem.
"It totally changed the way I look at the political process," she told The Skanner News. "After giving a first read of the measure, of course I'd support this. But after hearing from background witnesses, it really changed my mind. My decision would have been completely different."
Of course, not every citizen in Oregon will be able to take part in the panel of 24 people, selected using a system to create as diverse a panel as possible. The selected jury members were selected based on income, education, voting preferences and frequency, race, geographic location and other qualities. The goal of Project Director Tyrone Reitman, of Healthy Democracy Oregon, is to find the most representative pool of people as possible for each citizens jury. The model is based on the Jefferson Center's Citizens Jury model.
The citizens jury crafted a statement about Measure 73, which will be published in the Oregon Voters Pamphlet. The draft statement showed that 21 members of the jury did not support Measure 73; only 3 ended up supporting it.
Both women give the process high marks for its ability to educate citizens. Even Greene, who was part of a small minority who supported the measure and criticized some of the other members for hogging the pulpit, says she thinks the jury's statement should be of high value for Oregon voters.
"We're citizens getting both pros and cons of measures, and meeting with witnesses and victims," she said. "This is what 24 panelists decided."
Citizens jury members voted on the following findings. The other members voted to support the measure:
• M73 shifts the balance of power in court proceedings, giving the prosecution additional leverage in plea bargaining and limiting the judge's discretion in sentencing individual cases. (21 agree)
• Passed in 1994, Measure 11 (ORS 137.700) provides mandatory minimum sentencing of 70-300 months for the major felony sex crimes defined in Measure 73. (24 agree)
• Mandatory minimum sentencing has not proven a significant deterrent to future DUII or sex crimes. (21 agree)
• An unintended consequence of M73 is that juveniles aged 15 to 17 are subject to 25 year mandatory minimum sentences. (20 agree)
• Oregon spends over 10.9% of its general funds on corrections – a greater percentage than any other state. (19 agree)
This week, a new panel is meeting to discuss Measure 74, which would establish a medical marijuana dispensary system in the state.
Depending on how the panels and measures are evaluated, Reitman says the $125,000 to $150,000 cost of the evaluations are a pittance when compared to the money spent on the campaigns. According to the League of Women Voters, campaigns can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $4 million, depending on who's sponsoring the initiative and what it is.
Reitman hopes the voters of Oregon will view the panel as a valuable public service and vote to fund it. He said the idea of levying a tax on initiative campaigns to help pay for the service is also not out of the realm of possibilities. At least one citizens jury member, Greene, thinks taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for it. Although she thinks it's a valuable public service, no additional cost should be added during a time of recession.
In Oregon, the Citizens Initiative Review pilot project was created through a state law, led by Rep. Chris Harker (D-Beaverton), Rep. Ben Cannon (D-Portland) and Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls). An attempt to establish a similar system in Washington failed to attract enough support from interests groups or legislators in the state.
In addition, researchers from Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin were awarded a $218,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the qualitative and quantitative results of the project.
"They'll determine if there's a difference of how voters comprehend the measures and how they voted," Reitman said.