My View: Criminal justice system must work for young people
At 17 years old, I shot a gun into a car during an act of road rage. Many things led to this incident — being involved in a gang since 13, growing up without a father, and feeling isolated as the only Asian student in class. However, there was no excuse for the violence I committed.
I was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison — the adult mandatory minimum sentence for attempted murder and second-degree assault. Even though I was only 17 years old, Measure 11, passed over 20 years ago, meant I could be charged as an adult.
I spent the first seven years of my sentence at the Oregon Youth Authority MacLaren Correctional Facility, and for that I am extremely grateful. There, I was determined and encouraged to work toward a better future. I was able to obtain my high school diploma and start community college. I participated in rehabilitative classes that helped me understand the gravity of what I had done as well as how to heal from the trauma of my childhood so that I could be a more productive adult.
It was never fun or easy to be at MacLaren. Both my grandparents passed away while I was incarcerated. I worked extremely hard to atone for my actions and do the self-work I needed to do.
When I turned 25, I was immediately transferred to an adult prison to serve out the rest of my sentence — 5.5 years. I went from being able to have in-person visits with my mother to having to speak to her through a thick wall of glass with a pay phone. I spent 23 hours a day in social isolation. I can't describe the fear and degradation I felt during this time. It felt like all the hard work I had put in was for nothing. I was terrified I would fall back into gang activity to cope and survive.
This is the fate of many youths sentenced under Measure 11, and it's why Oregon needs to pass Senate Bill 1008 and rethink the way we sentence and rehabilitate youth. Among other reforms, SB 1008 would provide a "second look" halfway through a sentence for youths convicted as adults as of Jan. 1, 2020. A judge could determine whether the youth has taken responsibility for their crime and been rehabilitated, and if so they can serve the remainder of their sentence under community-based supervision.
Young people like me who are rehabilitated in Oregon's youth justice system are 20% less likely than those who end up in the adult system to commit crimes again when released. It makes sense to do what works.
Because of my hard work at MacLaren and the forgiveness and input of the people I hurt, I was granted clemency after four months in adult prison. This was a 1 in 15,000 chance. So many others are not so lucky. Many end up returning to prison at immense cost to themselves, their families, and the community. This is why we need lawmakers to pass SB 1008.
Getting a second chance gave me a new lease on life. I graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in criminology and criminal justice from Portland State University in 2014, and I now work for Multnomah County's Department of Community Justice Juvenile Services Division, helping kids who are in the same spot I was in.
SB 1008 will create a different and better future for youths in Oregon's criminal justice system, one where they can be part of their communities, not lost in our adult prison system.
Sang Dao was honored in 2016 with the national Coalition of Juvenile Justice's Spirit of Youth Award.