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Fixing Measure 11 April 14, 2007

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EDITORIAL PUBLISHED IN THE EUGENE REGISTER-GUARD

Among the most glaring flaws of Measure 11, the mandatory sentencing law approved by voters in 1994, is its requirement that juveniles as young as 15 be automatically sent to adult court when they’re accused of certain felonies.

There’s no need for such punitive inflexibility in dealing with juvenile offenders. The critical, life-changing decision of whether to try and sentence youths as adults should be made by Oregon judges, not by a one-size-fits-all provision incapable of assessing a young person’s potential for rehabilitation and reform.

The Oregon Legislature is considering two proposals to reform how juvenile offenders are sentenced. Both bills apply only to 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit Measure 11 crimes such as assault or robbery.

Senate Bill 1014 would change the requirement that youths charged with Measure 11 crimes be automatically tried as adults. Young offenders would receive pre-trial hearings in adult court in which judges would determine whether juvenile or adult court best provides accountability, public safety and rehabilitation.

House Bill 2904 would give youths a chance to go before a judge for a “second look” after they have served half of a Measure 11 sentence. Judges would be given the authority to grant youths conditional release to serve the remainder of their sentences under post-prison supervision if it can be proved that they have made significant progress.

Both bills recognize what Measure 11 did not: There are fundamental differences juvenile and adult offenders. Research has shown that adolescents’ brains do not develop fully until the age of 19 or 20. As any parent of teens can attest, that applies in particular to the parts of the brain that control judgment, impulse actions, and moral and ethical reasoning – in other words, the parts of the brain that at age 15 might decide, “I want to hold up that mini-mart” but at 20 might conclude, “That’s a really stupid and wrong thing to do, and I don’t want to spend the next decade in prison.”

Research and common sense also leave no doubt that young offenders who remain in juvenile justice systems are less likely to commit future crimes than their peers who are handed over to adult systems.

Both bills are part of a statewide Justice for Youth Campaign headed by the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice advocacy group. The bills have been endorsed by organizations ranging from Stand for Children to the Oregon Public Health Association.

Since it was approved by two-thirds of Oregon voters in 1994, Measure 11 has proven both a blessing and a curse. It has put dangerous offenders behind bars with longer sentences, and crime rates have steadily declined since it went into effect. Yet the law has stripped judges of their ability to exercise discretion, and it has forced a massive investment in prison construction – at the expense of other state programs.

Efforts to overturn Measure 11 have gone nowhere – voters defeated a repeal by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio in 2000. For better or worse, it appears destined to remain the dominant feature of Oregon’s justice system.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. A good place to start is changing the way the state’s criminal justice system deals with youth who commit crimes.

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