Our criminal justice system is fundamentally and intractably broken.
The ACLU of Oregon and Partnership for Safety & Justice envision a public safety system that is focused on solutions — prevention, harm reduction and healing — rather than punishment. The current system spends billions in state tax monies every year to over-police and mass incarcerate people (approximately 15,000 Oregonians in 2021), disproportionately imprisoning people from communities of color and low-income communities.
This approach has not made us safer. To the opposite, it has resulted in cycles of trauma, destabilization, and destruction in our most vulnerable communities. This has created less safety — not more. This fall, Gov. Kate Brown used her commutation powers to provide potential second chances to 74 Oregonians sentenced to prison as youth. This allows these individuals to ask the parole board to consider approving an earlier release date from prison.
Before granting or denying the requests, the parole board will review each individual's age and development at the time of the crime and whether they subsequently showed growth and rehabilitation. The parole board will also hear from prosecutors and victims before making decisions. Sen. Betsy Johnson suggested in a recent op-ed published Nov. 15, that Gov. Brown's commutations made Oregon less safe. This is not true. The governor's exercise of her commutation powers reflects the values of Oregonians who have acted to make our state live up to its values.
During summer 2020, thousands took to the streets across our state to protest systemic racism in policing and criminal justice. During fall 2020, Oregon voters approved Measure 110 to require that our state address drug addiction through treatment, rather than criminalization.
As we change and reduce the prison system, we also need to improve our support and services for survivors of crime. We know from our work with individuals who have experienced harm and violence that victims and survivors want good information about their case, they want a voice in the process, and they want to make sure the person who harmed them doesn't hurt them or anyone else.
People who have experienced a crime often experience trauma and have needs for support and services that extend well beyond the ending of a court case. This means that commutations like the governors' need to be granted alongside trauma-informed support for survivors and victims.
With the commutation decisions this fall, the governor gave the parole board the discretion to shorten prison sentences if doing so is consistent with our values. Given the importance of acknowledging and addressing the harm experienced by victims, these types of decisions are always complex and incredibly difficult.
However, we need our leaders and everyday people to engage in the hard but necessary work that interrupts the cycles of trauma, destabilization and destruction created by our broken systems of policing and mass incarceration.
A critical and unavoidable part of this work is injecting humanity and discretion into sentencing decisions. Funds are also needed to ensure that Oregonians who receive commutations have access to re-entry and other services that promote their success after prison.
As Oregonians, what we all fundamentally want and need are solutions that create safety and wellness for all communities, not the illusion of safety for privileged communities. What we want is justice, equity, and humanity, not vengeance.
Sandy Chung is executive director of ACLU of Oregon. Andy Ko is executive director of Partnership for Safety & Justice.
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