SALEM, Ore. — Several Democratic lawmakers have proposed a bill that would significantly change how Measure 11, Oregon's mandatory minimum sentencing law, functions in criminal courts. Supporters say the bill would add greater flexibility for judges — opponents say that it would gut punishments for the worst offenders.
Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 11 in 1994, applying mandatory minimum prison sentences for a list of crimes. Another measure passed simultaneously, Ballot Measure 10, requires that any changes to Measure 11 in the Oregon legislature be passed with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.
Measure 11 crimes by sentence length
5 years, 10 months
- Pornographic Exploitation of a Child
- Compelling Prostitution
6 years, 3 months
- Sexual Abuse I
- Unlawful Sexual Penetration II
- Sodomy II
- Rape II
- Manslaughter II
7 years, 6 months
- Arson I with Threat of Serious Injury
- Robbery I
- Kidnapping I
- Assault I
- Conspiracy to Commit Murder
- Attempted Murder
8 years, 4 months
- Unlawful Sexual Penetration I
- Sodomy I
- Rape I
- Manslaughter I
- Conspiracy to Commit Aggravated Murder
- Attempted Aggravated Murder
30 years - Life
- Aggravated Murder
(Robbery II, Kidnapping II, and Assault II carry a probable sentence of 5 years, 10 months)
Most of the crimes covered by Measure 11 are implicitly violent or sexual in nature. In a case where a defendant is convicted of Measure 11 crimes, the sentence cannot be reduced by the presiding judge. Murder, for instance, carries a mandatory minimum of 25 years in state prison.
Senator Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, has introduced Senate Bill 401, which would lift the mandatory minimum sentences of Measure 11 for many felonies excepting murder. Instead, it authorizes courts to "impose greater or lesser" sentences.
The bill is not without its supporters in the justice system, who say that the bill will allow courts greater flexibility in ensuring that the punishment in a given case more accurately fits the crime.
"For all of its importance, it is an incredibly easy bill to explain. It simply returns control over sentencing to judges,” said Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. “They’re free to impose a harsher sentence when the circumstances require it, and a more lenient sentence when the defendant is deserving. They are free to treat these cases, in other words, the same way they treat all others – by weighing the facts, hearing from both sides, and making a fair and reasoned decision – the thing that they, and not we [District Attorneys], were elected to do.”
Opponents of SB 401 say that it would gut Measure 11 rather than reforming it. Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert signaled that she is one of those opponents, joining seven other female district attorneys (of the nine women currently serving as district attorneys in Oregon) in posting a letter of opposition to the bill on Monday.
"As our Oregon Legislature currently contemplates the full repeal of this crucial safeguard for victims, we feel it is important the public understands that such actions would make our communities less safe," the DAs wrote. "Repealing Ballot Measure 11 will result in significantly shorter sentences for those who prey upon our children and assault our neighbors. Repealing Ballot Measure 11 promises less certainty in those sentences as they can be further cut by more than 40%, undermining any faith or confidence victims may have placed in the system."
Lane County Circuit Court Judge Darryl Larson spoke in favor of passing the bill on Tuesday, citing his experience as both a former prosecutor and a current judge.
“Having been a prosecutor for half my career, I understand why many prosecutors want to maintain mandatory minimums — it puts all the bargaining power in the hands of the prosecutor. This has led, in my opinion, to a very high likelihood of a number of innocent people doing prison time in Oregon,” Larson said. "There is really no data that supports an argument that making the changes being proposed here would have any effect to increase crime. The only thing being increased is justice."
Senate Republicans issued a statement in opposition to the bill, saying that it would cause Oregon's justice system to "go soft on violent criminals."
“This is a perfect example of the Democratic supermajority’s extreme disregard for bipartisanship and consensus-building,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod said. “Reasonable criminal justice reforms are possible, but instead Democrats opt to take the extreme position that rapists, kidnappers, and child abusers should be given lesser penalties.”
Senate Republicans cited recent polling, saying that more Oregonians support maintaining or increasing sentencing requirements "for violent offenders like rapists and murderers." But in the same poll, a majority of respondents supported the legislature replacing mandatory minimum sentences with discretionary sentences that would ultimately allow judges the ability to choose from a range — similar to what SB 401 would do.
Sen. Prozanski held a public hearing on the bill Tuesday, and it is scheduled for a legislative work session April 7 in the Oregon Senate Committee on Judiciary.