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Prosecutors Criticize Sentencing Report February 16, 2011

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Oregon’s district attorneys, including Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, are objecting to a state Criminal Justice Commission draft report on Measure 11, the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing law.

Gardner and Walt Beglau, Marion County District Attorney and president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, criticized the yet-to-be-finished analysis of the 1994 law. The commission chairman, however, on Tuesday defended the work.

Measure 11 sets mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, including murder, rape kidnapping, manslaughter and robbery.

The draft report, written by commission executive director Craig Prins, concluded that Measure 11 has shifted from judges to prosecutors the authority to sentence criminals. And, in spite of the claims of measure backers, the law hasn’t led to consistent sentencing and doesn’t deter people from committing crimes, said the draft report, which was released last week.

Gardner said the report is “more anti-Measure 11 advocacy than balanced, scientific analysis.”

Beglau, one of nine commissioners appointed by the governor to direct the 10-employee Criminal Justice Commission, said agency staff failed to solicit the opinions of district attorneys and other law enforcement authorities as they conducted research for the report.

Commission Chairman Darryl Larson, a former Lane County Circuit Court judge, said the analysis relies on crime data, not opinions, and that it confirms what many people in the criminal justice system suspected was the case — that Measure 11 gives prosecutors more control over sentencing than they had before the law took effect in 1995.

“It’s still hard for me to understand what their complaint is,” Larson said of district attorneys.

Beglau, Larson and the other commissioners will discuss their differences on Thursday, during a commission meeting in Salem.

Larson said he hopes the report will be completed by mid March.

In his critique of the draft report, Beglau wrote that with Measure 11, Oregon still ranks 30th in the nation in the percentage of felony offenders sentenced to prison.

The vast majority of prison inmates in Oregon are there because they committed violent or sexual crimes, he wrote.

Even though Measure 11 increased prison sentences, Beglau wrote that the state’s homicide sentences are slightly below the national average and its sentences for other violent crimes are shorter than national averages. For example, the average national sex crime sentence is 129 months, but it’s only 86 months in Oregon, Beglau wrote.

In their review, commission analysts looked at sentencing trends from 1995 to 2008. During that time, 28 percent of people indicted for a Measure 11 crime were convicted of the most serious charge against them and received the mandatory minimum sentence required by the law, analysts found. Only in those cases did the law “accomplish the goal” of Measure 11 proponents by requiring judges to impose the minimum mandatory sentences, the draft report said.

In the remaining 72 percent of the cases, prosecutors agreed to plea bargains or sought convictions on lesser charges that did not require the minimum mandatory Measure 11 sentences, the report said.

“This report makes clear the effect of the law was to push tough choices about what the sentence should be in an individual case to the executive branch (state prosecutors),” the report said. “It marginalized the role of the judge in the sentencing process.”

Critics of Measure 11 say fear of the measure’s stiff sentences often prompts accused criminals to accept a plea bargain rather than go to trial.

But Gardner said prosecutors have always had the ability to plea bargain. In most Oregon communities, as many as 95 percent of cases are “resolved via negotiation,” he said.

“If that were not the case the system would grind to a halt, as none of the system components has the capacity to manage litigation of every case,” Gardner said.

The district attorneys association “reminded everybody of this fact when the preposterous cost projections for Measure 11 were published in 1994.”

Measure 11 is not perfect, Gardner said, “and there have been collaborative efforts to improve it over time, but it has done a lot to improve community safety in Oregon.”

Larson said district attorneys appear resistant to examining how Measure 11 is working.

Commission staff proposed the Measure 11 analysis, and all the commissioners, except Beglau, “thought it was a great idea,” Larson said.

The district attorneys association “didn’t even want us to look at it,” he said.

In his letter, Beglau said he hoped his association’s concerns would influence the final report. “We hope this moment represents an opportunity to develop collaborative dialogue around sentencing in Oregon with the entire public safety system, legislators and the public,” he wrote.



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