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Oregon Supreme Court Rules For Fair Measure 11 Sentences October 4, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

This is indeed a monumental day for all citizens of Oregon. Finally, judges will be able to do their job and mitigate proportional sentences. It should shock the moral sense of all reasonable people that these two situations even became cases. Overzealous District Attorneys were used to having all the power and knew they could win every case a police officer gave them. Why do you think there has been an overwhelming number of people settle out of court?  If you didn’t do anything wrong, were thrown in a room and told to plead guilty to a lesser charge with a relatively light sentence or go to prison for 75 months without the possibility of parole, which would you choose?

In the first successful challenge to Oregon’s Measure 11 mandatory sentencing requirements, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday Sept. 24 that the severity of a criminal penalty must be related to the gravity of the offense.

In a 4-3 ruling, justices said that in “rare circumstances” trial court judges can impose lesser sentences than those required by Measure 11.

Approved by voters in 1994, Measure 11 set required sentences for certain serious crimes, taking away the discretionary power of judges.

Thursday’s ruling does not repeal Measure 11 and it does not affect any sentences beyond those in the two cases that were appealed to the Supreme Court. But it is the first chink in a law that has been hailed by some for lowering crime and called Draconian one-size-fits-all justice by others.

The ruling stems from two child sex abuse convictions in which trial court judges determined that Measure 11 sentences were too severe.

Veronica Rodriguez was convicted in 2005 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy she met while working at the Hillsboro Boys & Girls Club. Her crime, according to the Supreme Court ruling, was bringing the back of a boy’s head in contact with her clothed breasts in a room of 30 to 50 people for about one minute.

A trial judge in her case said the Measure 11 sentence of more than six years was too harsh. Rodriguez served 16 months in prison and was released in October 2006.

The other case involves Darryl Buck who was sentenced in Linn County in 2006. Buck touched the clothed buttocks of a 13-year-old girl who was sitting next to him fishing. When the girl stood up, Buck brushed the dirt off the girl’s shorts with two swipes of his hand.

The judge in Buck’s case imposed a 17-month sentence, not the 75-month prison term mandated by Measure 11. The judge said a six-year sentence would be “grossly unfair” given that the touching was “outside the clothes, it was without fondling, it was not a situation where it was forced.”

Neither Buck nor Rodriguez had criminal records.

The state appealed the trial court sentencing decisions. The Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and said the sentences would “not shock the moral sense of all reasonable people” and were not unduly harsh.

Both Buck and Rodriguez served their reduced sentences. Thursday’s decision means neither of the two will have to return to prison. The ruling by the Supreme Court affirms both convictions but finds that the mandatory minimum Measure 11 sentences were so disproportionately severe they “shock the moral sense of all reasonable men as to what is right and proper.”

The court’s decision means trial court judges can now determine whether Measure 11 sentences are proportional to the offense.

“This is a good win for the state,” said Peter Gartlan , a public defender who represented Veronica Rodriguez and Darryl  Buck in their appeals. “This means there are restrictions on legislative sentencing schemes.”

Although the ruling is historic, it does not present a legal challenge to Measure 11, according to Margie Paris, dean of the University of Oregon Law School.

“The measure itself stands,” Paris said. “It is still operative and mandatory minimums apply, except for when they don’t, which is very narrow.” But, she added, “The court said we need to have sentences of different magnitudes.”

Megan Johnson, a senior deputy district attorney in Washington County, which prosecuted Rodriguez, said the decision will have little impact on the way her office conducts itself.

“We are going to continue to do our best to try and protect vulnerable kids and use the law as written and interpreted to do so,” she said. “We’re pleased the convictions were upheld and pleased Veronica Rodriguez served a prison sentence for her conduct.”

Kevin Mannix, the Salem attorney and former legislator who wrote Measure 11, said the decision applies only in cases in which defendants have no criminal histories.

“These were two extraordinary cases out there on the rim. I do not see the sky is falling,” he said. “Out of the thousands of Measure 11 cases over the last 15 years, we have two cases where rare circumstances have been found and Measure 11 sentences are not being applied.”

Measure 11 applied mandatory sentences for 16 violent and sex-related offenses. Controversial from the beginning, the measure set off a prison-building spree and increased Oregon’s prison population by 80 percent.

“Measure 11’s mandatory scheme destroyed the most critical aspect of an effective criminal justice system: the ability to consider the individual circumstances of every case when determining sentences,” said David Rogers, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Safety and Justice.

Thursday’s ruling, he said, “is a profound acknowledgement that mandatory minimum sentences can be deeply problematic.”

This decision is good news for basic civil rights and fairness. But it’s also good news for Oregon taxpayers who throw millions down the rabbit hole of the state prison system. These egregiously long sentences for these types of situations are unjust and a burden on an a system already under serious pressure.



1. teri - December 30, 2009

Mr Buck was only helping the child clean her clothes.
I would not have given him any time in jail.