Guest Column

In a Nov. 12 editorial, The Bulletin’s editorial board claimed that mandatory sentencing for the most violent felonies was “ripe for change,” and that “people have been looking at the ways Measure 11 can get things wrong.”

These are not new arguments. Measure 11 passed first in 1994 by 65% of voters, then was reaffirmed in 2000 when 73% rejected repeal. It mandates a five-year sentence for child molesters, eight for violent rape, 10 for first degree manslaughter, and 25 years for murder. Measure 11 does not apply to whatever drug crimes exist, or burglary, or even the lower felony levels of assault and rape.

Long-time Measure 11 foe Sen. Floyd Prozanski, cited by The Bulletin’s editorial, is one of the usual suspects who for a quarter-century have been telling the vast majority of Oregonians they are wrong to vote for mandatory minimums.

This would be understandable if it were still 25 years ago. Even I didn’t endorse Measure 11 when it first came on the ballot in 1994, which coincided with my first year as an elected district attorney. But it wasn’t long before I came to realize what many understood: that without mandatory minimums, privilege and status often affected the sentence of a convicted person. Rapists of a certain socioeconomic class could and often enough did get away with probation only, and served no time at all. Some people I helped convict of murder in the 1980s and early 1990s would often serve only eight years on what was touted as a life sentence.

Eight years is not too much for the rape of a child. A cold-blooded, premeditated murderer deserves to serve at least 25 years, not a third of that.

There is no question that Measure 11 has lessened racial disparities in sentencing for the most severe and violent crimes. There is no evidence that it has increased conviction rates. What it has increased is accountability, and it’s for that very reason certain prosecutors like Deschutes DA John Hummel avoid charging under Measure 11. They apparently prefer the old system, where who you knew helped decide your sentence, and victims had no rights.

The effort to “refashion” Measure 11 will come early in the 2021 legislative session and will be about repeal, not “adjustment.” The “presumptive sentencing” system The Bulletin’s editorial referred to simply set maximums, not minimums, and gave rise to the very inequities that drove support for Measure 11.

In 2019 the Legislature dismantled the portion of Measure 11 affecting juvenile sentencing late at night and as much in the dark as possible. They did not refer the measure to voters, as they should have. In 2021 they will again, late at night and with little or no public notice, gut what voters have resoundingly said twice what they want.

And if this isn’t bad enough, there will be promises that the changes “will only apply in the future.” They made the exact same claims when they gutted capital punishment in SB 1013, and now we are told it is retroactive.

Joshua Marquis was district attorney in Astoria from 1994-2018. He was chief deputy DA in Bend from 1990 to 1994.

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