A package of bills aimed at reducing young inmates’ contact with the state’s adult prison system got its first hearing Thursday, with a weighty contingent of justice officials testifying in support.
The proposed changes, worked up over the course of months by a legislative work group, seek to ensure offenders who commit serious crimes as adolescents are given a better chance at rehabilitation. That’s a chance that many testified is sharply reduced once juvenile prisoners in custody of the state’s Oregon Youth Authority are transferred at age 25 to the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Among those offering support for the bills were Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters, and Oregon Youth Authority Director Joe O’Leary. A host of civil liberties and justice-reform groups are also backing the changes.
“I’ve learned that juveniles can be many things,” Rosenblum testified. “They can be impulsive. They can be cruel. They can be, on occasion, profoundly and dismayingly violent. But the one thing they can never be, even though technically the system treats them as such, is an adult... The time has come for us to engage in a deep and critical reflection on the fairness of our juvenile justice system.”
But amid overwhelming support, the changes also inspired concern from some in the criminal justice community, including the state’s district attorneys and Kevin Mannix, the architect of the 1994 ballot measure that ensured juveniles 15 and older are tried as adults for certain serious crimes.
“Any bill that legislatively amends criminal justice ballot initiatives should be referred back to the people for their consideration,” said Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, who serves as president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association.
Oregon lawmakers have been chipping away at state sentencing laws for years, in an effort to reduce prison usage and create better county-based diversion programs. Those efforts included a 2013 bill that allowed for more lenient sentences for some drug, robbery and identity theft offenses, and a 2017 law that altered sentences for repeat theft offenders.
“We left the juvies out,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, speaking specifically of the 2013 reforms. “We did not have the courage then, but I hope we’ll have the courage today.”
This year, leaders of the judiciary committees in both the Senate and House of Representatives have said they’ll take on juvenile justice. The package considered Thursday contains five bills that alter how serious juvenile offenders are sentenced and where they are incarcerated.
• Senate Bill 966 would apply to juvenile offenders scheduled to be released before their 27th birthday. The law would allow courts to decide whether those inmates could be released, rather than turned over to the Department of Corrections, when they turned 25.
• Senate Bill 967 ensures that people who commit crimes before they are 18, but aren't sentenced until they turn 19, can be put into custody of the Oregon Youth Authority.
• Senate Bill 968 says that juvenile offenders can't be sentenced to life without parole, and are eligible for parole after 15 years.
• Senate Bill 969 does away with a mandate that juveniles 15 or older be tried as adults if they commit one of the serious crimes set forth in Ballot Measure 11, which Oregon voters passed in 1994. Those crimes include murder, sex offenses, kidnapping, and arson.
• Senate Bill 1008 creates new provisions for when serious juvenile offenders are eligible for conditional release.
Most of those bills would need the support of two-thirds of state lawmakers in each chamber to pass, since they would tweak voter-approved sentencing laws. They have the support of Gov. Kate Brown.
Central to many supporters' views on the bills were two key ideas: that adolescents' brains aren’t fully developed, and that any positive changes inmates experience in juvenile detention can be quickly undone in an adult prison.
“Mixing youth criminal thinking with adult criminal thinking creates adult criminal thinking,” said Peters, the DOC director. “Sending most youth to the adult department of corrections increases the likelihood of increased recidivism, and OYA has the clear data to prove that.”
Peters added: “If their brains are not developed, how can they be held accountable for the rest of their lives?”
That idea was echoed by Ajit Jetmalani, a medical doctor and Oregon Health & Science University professor who testified that adolescent brain development isn't complete for some people until they're in their mid-20s. That creates problems in decision-making when adolescents feel threatened, are around peers, or are drinking or using drugs, Jetmalani testified.
Amid the testimony, only prosecutors and Mannix, the Measure 11 architect, raised concerns. While their stances differed, both voiced objections to the notion lawmakers would pass significant sentencing changes.
“We need to be extremely cautious when revisiting a ballot measure passed by voters,” said Mannix, who said he supported the notion behind two of the bills, SB 966 and 967. He added that he opposes changes that could stop serious juvenile offenders being tried as adults.
Supporters, meanwhile, said the hearing showed Oregon is ready for what they believe are overdue changes.
“This is actually monumental,” said David Rogers, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.
“When you look at both the leaders within the criminal justice system and the … attorney general saying that now we actually need to be able to fix this, I think that that suggests that Oregon could be on the verge of really getting it right.”