The Portland area's three elected district attorneys are pushing and pulling in opposite directions as reform of Oregon's Measure 11 returns to the Legislature's to-do list this session.
One proposal filed on behalf of Gov. Kate Brown would replace the 1994 measure's mandatory minimum sentences, which usually can't be modified, with punishment guidelines that judges can strengthen or weaken — with an exception for murder cases.
Another Senate bill would make Measure 11 prisoners not convicted of murder eligible to reduce their sentence by demonstrating good behavior or self-improvement. Those convicted under the old rules could earn time off, too, with approval from a sentencing court.
"How do you change people?" Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a former deputy district attorney who now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked. "I find that incentive-based programming is better for behavioral modification than being punitive."
Prozanski, a Democrat representing parts of Douglas and Lane counties near Eugene, pitched his argument to the Oregon District Attorney's Association last week, but it was a tough crowd.
On Jan. 12, the association staked out its continued support for Measure 11, noting it was reapproved by voters in 2000. The association released a survey of 600 registered voters in December showing that only 23% of Oregonians have an unfavorable opinion of the law, compared with 54% in favor. The remainder were unsure or had no opinion, and the margin of error is 4%.
Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton trumpeted the results on his government website. He said advocates' national talking points about mass incarceration don't apply here, highlighting Oregon's lack of a three-strikes law for violent crimes.
"Oregon's prison population is primarily filled with violent offenders who deserve to be in prison," Barton said. "If you want to make changes to Measure 11, send it back to the people and let them voice their opinions."
Clackamas County District Attorney John Wentworth, who was elected without opposition to the post last year, agreed.
"I think it's working as intended," he said of Measure 11. Regarding the proposals in Salem, he said they're "designed to benefit the criminal defense and take power away from prosecutors, making it more difficult to prove our cases and lessen sentences once we do."
Multnomah County D.A. Mike Schmidt is the lone reformer, at least in the metro area.
In a statement on Jan. 8, Schmidt, Wasco County District Attorney Matt Ellis and Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel signed on to lawmakers' reform efforts.
"Mandatory minimum sentences should be a thing of the past," they said. "Our system of mandatory minimums contributes to the rapid growth of our prison population and has led to the disproportionate incarceration of diverse communities. It has not made us safer."
On the campaign trail last year, Schmidt pledged to leave the Oregon District Attorneys Association, but has remained a member after taking office, the Tribune has learned.
Washington County D.A. Barton was too young to vote for Measure 11 when it first passed, but the 43-year-old cut his teeth working crimes against children as a deputy prosecutor for a decade. The experience, full of grim and blunt details, animates his belief that most Oregonians would support longer minimum sentences from crimes like sex abuse.
"If the proposal is to roll back Measure 11," he says, "I don't think it's reform. That's more like regression."
This isn't Sen. Prozanski first time trying to tackle the thorny problem of criminal justice reform. He says it's not the momentum of a year of revolt animating his proposal, but first-hand experience in Norway studying their model of criminal justice.
"As a prosecutor, someone who has a sister who was murdered, I want these people to be held accountable," Prozanski said. But added, "we cannot mothball them."
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