Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe (left) chats with his chief deputy, Brendon Alexander, in Vale. Goldthorpe believes any changes to Measure 11 will make communities less safe. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

VALE – Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe believes a change to Oregon’s Measure 11 minimum sentencing law is a bad idea.

So, does the Oregon District Attorneys Association. 

But a new bill sponsored by the Senate Judiciary Committee would modify the law that state voters approved in 1994.

The law establishes mandatory minimum sentences for a host of violent crimes such as murder, rape, conspiracy to commit murder and sodomy.

Under the law, an inmate convicted of a Measure 11 crime cannot be released early for good behavior or paroled short of their full sentence.

Senate Bill 191 isn’t the only criminal sentencing legislation pending for review and approval by lawmakers. Three other bills – one in the Senate and two in the House – propose reducing mandatory sentences for crimes other than murder.

Senate Bill 191 would allow an individual sentenced under Measure 11 for a crime other than murder to be eligible for a reduction in their sentences for good behavior.

The bill also will allow a state judge to revisit cases sentenced under Measure 11 and provide for early release for good behavior.

Changes in the law have occurred before. In 1997 and 2001 legislators modified the number of crimes subject to the sentencing requirements. In 2019 the Legislature modified Measure 11 sanctions for juveniles.

According to Oregon Department of Corrections statistics, there are nearly 6,000 adults currently in custody sentenced for Measure 11 crimes. 

The sentencing law is controversial in some circles. Critics assert any mandatory minimum sentence is too rigid and gives prosecutors too much power.

Goldthorpe doesn’t agree.

“There is nothing good that will come to Oregon by easing Measure 11,” said Goldthorpe.

Goldthorpe said Measure 11 was narrowly tailored to address only the most serious crimes.

“These are not drug possession or driving offenses or stealing. They are the most horrific violent types of crimes,” said Goldthorpe.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association also opposes any changes to the law.

The association recently cited the results of its own report that the law works.

“What the data shows is that after Measure 11 passed, Oregon’s violent crime rate dropped dramatically and more than anywhere else in the nation. Over the past 27 years, Oregon’s violent crime rate has dropped by more than 50%,” said Michael Wu, association executive director.

Goldthorpe said Measure 11 is a key tool to prosecute the most violent offenders in a community.

“It is extremely valuable and my job in prosecuting these horrible crimes would be instantly complicated,” said Goldthorpe.

Goldthorpe said generally people who commit Measure 11 type crimes “haven’t committed them before. You catch them the first time and it is nice to be able to send them to prison for a while.”

“It is a measure that helps maintain a certain level of community safety,” said Goldthorpe.

A change in the law to allow reduction in an inmate’s sentence for good behavior is an important incentive, said Vale attorney Brian Zanotelli.

“Almost any crime under the sun that a person gets sentenced for, they can earn good time credit. If you rehabilitate yourself then they will knock a very small amount off the tail end of the sentence,” said Zanotelli.

Because Measure 11 forbids such early releases, inmates have little incentive to rehabilitate, said Zanotelli.

“Of course, we want to punish people who do serious crimes but we also want some incentive to behave. I am not saying sentences should be reduced by 50 percent but certainly 10 percent if you stay out of trouble and get treatment,” said Zanotelli.

Goldthorpe said any modification to Measure 11 that gives judges more discretion will return “the ability for judges to be biased.”

“If they get rid of this, then it is wide open. Judges can do whatever they want on these crimes. In my experience that is what creates the greatest inequity,” said Goldthorpe.

Under the current law, said Goldthorpe, that potential bias is barred.

“Measure 11 takes bias away. If you stab someone or touch a young child, you’ll get at least the minimum sentence,” said Goldthorpe.

State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said he’s seen the Senate bill but does not have “enough information to make a decision on it.”

However, Findley said, based on an initial glance, he doesn’t like the proposed legislation.

“On a first look I have some concerns with it. But, as I do with all of those bills, I have a sounding board I use. I have judges, active and retired, and district attorneys and defense attorneys who all provide me input,” said Findley.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] .

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