Two Oregon district attorneys brought a legal action Tuesday against Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the state Department of Corrections, alleging the governor violated constitutional clemency requirements by releasing around 1,000 inmates early under various circumstances in recent years.
Lane County District Attorney Patricia Perlow, Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny and four family members of homicide victims are listed as plaintiffs in the legal petition filed in the Marion County Circuit Court. The lawsuit primarily seeks to stop early release of more than 70 people who committed crimes as juveniles, including murder, and are now eligible for parole under an executive order.
The legal action, which was filed by a law firm operated by prominent Republican activist Kevin Mannix, alleges Brown granted clemency to people who had not sought early release through the standard legal process.
“Convicted criminals must initiate the process to seek forgiveness and state their case by demonstrating remorse, rehabilitation, and a desire and capability to reasonably re-enter society,” the plaintiffs argue in the filing.
The district attorneys and crime victims also allege Brown violated the law by asking the Department of Corrections to become involved in the clemency process.
Throughout the pandemic, top officials with the Department of Corrections have provided Brown with lists of inmates who had less than six months on their sentence and met other conditions for early release. The lists, according to the governor’s office, were designed to identify medically vulnerable inmates and move them out of congregate facilities where COVID-19 has frequently spread. The result was more than 900 people being released early from the Department of Corrections. Some inmates also earned early release by assisting with wildfire fighting efforts during the massive blazes that scorched the state in 2020.
“Most, if not all, 953 convicted felons were released from their sentences early, without any clemency applications for such relief,” the district attorneys argue, noting the Department of Corrections also failed to notify district attorneys across the state of the early releases as required by state law.
The governor’s office came under scrutiny this month after a prolific Portland burglar, who had his sentence commuted due to COVID-19, failed to check in with his parole officer and committed another burglary in November. In that incident, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported the Multnomah County deputy district attorney on the case had not been alerted of the man’s early release.
“When they’re granted to the rate of nearly 1,000 commutations, then really it becomes a rewriting of sentencing laws,” Marteeny told OPB. “That is a lot of commutations that have been handed down.”
Aliza Kaplan, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at Lewis and Clark Law School, has represented people in the past on clemency issues and criticized the lawsuit.
“The law is very clear on the governor’s power to grant clemency. She’s using it in the exact way it was intended by our founders,” Kaplan said. “There’s precedent for granting group clemency. It’s unfortunate that we have to all waste our time talking about this lawsuit.”
While the plaintiffs in the case have taken issue with the hundreds of COVID-related commutations, the roughly 70 people who committed serious crimes as juveniles and are now eligible for a parole hearing are a major focus of the legal action.
In 2019, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that made changes to the juvenile justice system by eliminating life sentences without parole for youth offenders. It also allowed them another hearing to review their case after serving half their sentences.
After that bill became law, Brown signed an executive order allowing it to apply retroactively to juveniles convicted between 1988 and 2019.
District attorneys across the state have criticized that decision as dangerous and traumatizing to crime victims.
The governor’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation.