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Will Gov. Renege on Promise to Young Offenders?

PHOTO: Advocates for juveniles behind bars in Oregon say they might be left out of the justice reform package being negotiated in the State Legislature. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: Advocates for juveniles behind bars in Oregon say they might be left out of the justice reform package being negotiated in the State Legislature. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
June 11, 2013

SALEM, Ore. - The long state legislative session has been full of promises to reform Oregon's criminal justice system, putting more focus on crime prevention and less on locking people up. Now, advocates for young offenders say all but a handful might be left out of that reform effort, in a compromise crafted to appease District Attorneys.

The Governor's Commission on Public Safety recommended allowing young people to earn a judge's review of their sentence after serving most of their time. But according to David Rogers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, the compromise deal is much more narrow.

"The governor's office seems to be supporting a watered-down earned-review policy that will impact a very tiny number of youth, maybe eight to ten young people," Rogers charged. "And he expects that doing that, he'll be able to get away with saying that he's done something."

Rogers said the idea of allowing judges more discretion in juvenile cases has had bipartisan support among lawmakers, and also in a poll of Oregon voters taken two months ago.

If the Commission's recommendations are bypassed, Oregon will be bucking a national trend that includes 20 years of juvenile justice research. Liz Ryan, president of the Campaign for Youth Justice, explained that the new focus in many states is on rehabilitation and ensuring that a young person doesn't re-offend.

"A number of states have taken steps to change their laws: removing kids from automatic prosecution in adult criminal court, giving judges more discretion on whether or not to transfer kids to adult court, and also removing kids from adult jails and prisons," she said. "This session, we don't want Oregon to get left behind."

Ryan added that just this year, four more states changed their laws to ensure that juveniles are treated differently and separately from adults in the court system.

In Oregon, Rogers is concerned that members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Public Safety might accept the compromise, even if they aren't happy with it.

"Many of them would like to see their very hard work not totally wasted," he said. "So I think that, because time is of the essence here, the co-chairs of the committee are essentially inclined to take something rather than nothing."

The legislative session concludes at the end of June.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR