A team of University of Oregon alumni and students recently completed a year and a half examination of Oregon’s Measure 11 and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. The result is “Public Plea,” a television documentary and five-part podcast series produced with collaborative support from Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Oregonian, and Willamette Week.

Measure 11 was approved by Oregon voters in 1994, during the “tough-on-crime” era. It created mandatory minimum sentencing for certain crimes with no possibility for review or parole. Juveniles 15 and older were tried as adults depending on the offense.

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A young person sits on a bunk bed, facing the camera.

Rick Gaters sits on his bunk at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility.

Denise Silfee / www.denisesilfee.com

The project chronicles the plight of Ricky Gaters, who at age 17 was stopped and arrested by Portland police officers who were investigating a nearby gang-related shooting. Gaters maintains he wasn’t involved, and evidence connecting him with the crime was inconclusive. However, to reduce his sentence from 20 or more years to 10, he pled guilty to previous lesser crimes.

In 2019, legislative reforms removed Measure 11′s enforcement on juveniles, returning discretion to judges, but the changes were not made retroactive.

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Four years into his 10-year sentence, Gaters seeks post-conviction relief, a judicial process that could potentially set him free.

In October 2021, Gov. Kate Brown released a new commutation plan, which allows some individuals serving time for crimes committed as juveniles to be eligible to seek parole or be released.

“Public Plea” examines the issue from various perspectives, including interviews with juveniles, reform and victims’ rights advocates, defense attorneys, prosecutors, legislators, academics, social workers and a criminologist.

A person helps a man with his tie.

Ricky Gaters prepares for the court date that could set him free.

Denise Silfee / www.denisesilfee.com

“Following the George Floyd tragedy, like many Americans, I asked myself how I might contribute to the public conversation about criminal justice and possible reforms? That’s when I discovered Oregon’s Measure 11 and its adverse impact on communities of color,” said Ed Madison, the project’s executive producer. Madison is an associate professor and media partnerships manager at the UO’s School of Journalism and Communication, and he was a founding producer at CNN. UO alum Jordan Bentz is the project’s producer, videographer, and editor. They assembled a team of nine other alums and current students to bring the eighteen-month project together.

Listen to the podcast series and learn more about the project at PublicPlea.net. The documentary will be broadcast on OPB on Feb. 7 at 9 p.m.

Casey Winbush is an emerging journalist and senior at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Currently, she and five other UO students are in New Orleans, Louisiana, exploring stories about how successive hurricanes, an oil spill, and Covid-19 are adversely affecting communities of color.

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