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Work group in the Legislature will address issue after this year's legislative session ends

Oregon lawmakers have abandoned a bill that would create a new crime of threatening a school or house of worship.GRAPHIC FILE PHOTO - Oregon lawmakers have abandoned a bill that would create a new crime of threatening a school or church.

Concerns from community organizations prompted legislators to instead convene a work group to address what law enforcement says is a growing problem.

House Bill 4145 would have made threatening these sensitive locations a Class A misdemeanor, the same level as reckless driving or prostitution. People convicted under the new law would be placed on probation and would undergo a mental health evaluation.

State Rep. Courtney Neron, a Wilsonville Democrat who sponsored the bill, told the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 10 that law enforcement typically charges people who make these threats with disorderly conduct, something that did not mandate mental health evaluation or monitoring.

"I believe we need to interrupt a path to prison with a path to treatment anytime a person is convicted of being a community threat in this way," Neron said.

On Feb. 12, Rep. Tawna Sanchez, the Portland Democrat who is chairwoman of the committee, announced that a work group would come up with a new bill seeking to address the problem. That bill would have to be introduced in a future session.

After the hearing, Sanchez said details about the work group were still being figured out. The group would include organizations that didn't feel they were involved in crafting the existing bill. She said the work group would consider challenges in rural and urban areas among other topics.

Hodgepodge of laws

During a committee hearing on the bill, district attorneys and representatives from police organizations said that Oregon law didn't anticipate this growing problem.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton told the committee that law enforcement often relies on a "hodgepodge" of existing laws when someone threatens a school or a house of worship.

House Bill 4145 was introduced at a time when Oregon is trying to reverse decades of mass incarceration. During the hearing, state Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas) said she was worried the bill would turn young people into felons "even when hard-headed or mentally ill." Both the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers and the ACLU of Oregon voiced concerns about the legislation as well.

Since 1999, there have been more than two dozen attacks on houses of worship and faith-based organizations in the United States. According to the Facts & Trends online database, more than 600 people have been killed in those attacks during the past 21 years.

Zakir Khan, board chairman for Oregon affiliate of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the committee that his organization was neutral on the legislation because there hadn't been enough outreach to groups like his. He also pointed out the lack of data on the issue.

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