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Speakers argue against mandatory minimum sentencing in Oregon

SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville was built in 2001. It is the only women's prison in Oregon, and currently houses 1,270 female inmates. A quarter of those inmates are serving Measure 11 sentences. A Sept. 19 meeting at Wilsonville’s Meridian Church of Christ, commonly known as the Frog Pond Church, drew more than 60 area residents interested in Measure 11 reform.

Measure 11 was a ballot measure passed in November of 1994. It established mandatory minimum sentencing for certain violent crimes committed after April 1, 1995. The measure was passed concurrently with Measure 10, which prevents the Oregon Legislature from altering Measure 11 by less than a two-thirds majority, as opposed to the simple majority usually required to amend laws.

The meeting was one of several held around the state in recent weeks. It was organized by Patty Youngblood of Oregon City and Barbara Dickerson of Milton-Freewater, both of whom have loved ones behind bars for Measure 11 offenses.

“We organized the meeting because both of us — her husband and my son — we felt got a raw deal,” said Youngblood. “I could not accept that the judge would turn to me personally, and my son, in the courtroom, and say, ‘I’m sorry. If I could do anything else, I would, because he doesn’t deserve this. But I can’t with Measure 11.’”

Supporters said that the measure would provide badly-needed consistency to the state’s criminal justice system, and would help to reduce violent crime rates. Detractors argued that it would make it impossible for judges to take into account the circumstances surrounding a particular crime when sentencing.

Youngblood and Dickerson voiced their opposition to Measure 11 and State Senator Chuck Riley (D-Hillsboro) and other attendees also said that they did not approve of the initiative. Attorney Jess Barton of Salem gave a presentation on the different routes by which Measure 11 reform might be accomplished.

Part of the reason the meeting was held in Wilsonville, Youngblood and Dickerson said, was the proximity of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only prison for women in Oregon.

Measure 11 helped make Coffee Creek Correctional necessary in the first place. When it was built in 2001, Oregon was in the midst of a boom in incarceration rates.

“Oregon needed to build a new women’s prison and prisoner intake facility due to the increased demand for prison space created with the passage of Ballot Measure 11 in 1994,” said Betty Bernt, communications manager with the Oregon Department of Corrections.

The prison was a controversial project from the outset, with opponents arguing that the prison would be a public safety hazard. Others noted that the prison would garner extra tax revenue for the City of Wilsonville, and that it would bring over 500 new jobs to the area.

The incarceration rate continued to rise after the prison was built. In his presentation, Barton pointed to a 2011 report to Kitzhaber by the Commission on Public Safety, which found that Oregon’s incarceration rate increased by nearly 80 percent between 1995 and 2010.

The rates of violent and property crime saw a significant decrease — around 50 percent — during that period. But the report claims that New York and California saw a similar reduction in crime without a similar increase in incarceration rates.

Barton said that there have been a number of attempts to reform or repeal Measure 11 over the years. One of the most significant challenges came in the form of Measure 94, which was put on the ballot in 2000 and would have repealed Measure 11 entirely. Measure 94 was defeated almost three to one.

That defeat was due in part to political maneuvering and dishonesty on the part of Measure 94 supporters, Barton said. Some reformers, who were members of the organization Citizens for Measure 11 reform, claimed that loved ones had received outrageous sentences for minor crimes when in fact some of those offenders had committed far more serious offenses.

“After an article came out in the media about these kinds of stories, prosecutors were able to rebut all those in a subsequent article,” Barton said. “And this really undermined Citizens for Measure 11 Reform.”

Barton outlined a number of strategies that might be used to change Measure 11, and argued that it would be necessary to modify Measure 10 before any real changes could be made to Measure 11.

“I think that people have been too kind in terms of trying to seek some kind of sentencing reform,” he said.

Dickerson said that the reform she seeks would reduce the number of first-time offenders sentenced under Measure 11.

“You even take half of those (offenders), and take them out of the justice system, you can shut down EOCI (Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution). You can shut down three small prisons,” Dickerson said.

Whether or not reform would have a significant impact on Coffee Creek Correctional Facility is a matter of speculation. Measure 11 offenders account for around a quarter of all inmates incarcerated at Coffee Creek. Bernt said that out of a total population of 1,270 female inmates at the facility, 277 are Measure 11 offenders.

Contact Jake Bartman at 503-636-1281 ext. 113 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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