Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Measure 57 is the better choice

Guest Column
For The Daily Astorian
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

As your district attorney for more than 14 years, you elect me to protect you from the small number of criminals who break the law.

Oregon is a state that gives voters the right to make substantial changes in state law, and in this election such a choice is before the voters. Voters have the opportunity to make three possible choices on the November ballot concerning property crime.

There are two essentially competing ballot measures - 57 and 61. The latter was drafted by Kevin Mannix and proposes mandatory prison sentences for several first-time property offenses, including burglary and identity theft. Measure 57 was referred by the Legislature and is supported by a broad coalition ranging from criminal defense attorneys to almost every elected Oregon prosecutor. Measure 57 gives judges the power to sentence drug dealers, thieves and burglars to up to three years in prison and to order treatment.

Our citizens are extremely frustrated that a small number of criminals continues to commit the majority of the property crime. Oregonians are so frustrated that they are going to pass both Measures 57 and 61; the question is which deserves the most votes and will be enacted into law? If both measures pass, the one which gets the greater number of votes takes effect and the other one that "passed" by a lesser amount does not go into effect.

Because of this, your vote is even more critical, and I hope you will join me in voting yes on Measure 57.

In the 14 years I have served as Clatsop County's chief prosecutor, no one has ever accused me of being soft on crime. I support Measure 57 not only because it is much less expensive but also because it covers a much broader number of repeat property crimes than Measure 61. It gives judges the authority to impose prison, but doesn't make it mandatory, and offers treatment that is often critical for offenders who are overwhelmingly involved in substance abuse.

Since 2005, I have served on the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission which reviews Oregon's sentencing guidelines. This gives me a unique perspective on Oregon sentencing policy. Since 1994 when a judge sentences a rapist to eight years in prison, they actually serve eight years in prison. But while violent crime has dramatically decreased over the last 10 years, property crime rates have remained high, in large part because judges have been prevented from giving significant sentences.

One recent vivid example was the theft and destruction of the statue of Sacagewea at Lewis and Clark National Park. The criminal who vandalized and cut the head off the bronze statute had a criminal record that included misdemeanor and felony convictions. He was convicted of aggravated theft in the first degree, which on paper carries a possible 10 years in prison. What was the actual sentence?. Twenty days in jail. The judge said he wished he could give him more time, but sentencing guidelines forbade it.

Under Measure 57 he could have given this repeat criminal up to two years in prison.

Under Measure 61 this particular crime isn't even covered, so the judge would still be stuck with a maximum of 20 days.

For a justice system to work, there needs to be proportionality and flexibility. Not all crimes are the same and not all criminals are the same. Under Measure 61 anyone convicted of residential burglary would be automatically sentenced to three years in prison. Some burglars deserve that, but I have prosecuted many cases where a young person with no criminal record breaks into a vacation home and steals liquor. While this is a serious offense, forcing a judge to impose a three-year prison term makes little sense.

By the same token, if we fail to pass Measure 57, Oregon will remain the favorite place for identity thieves and burglars to ply their trade.

If you have questions about these ballot measures, feel free to contact me at (coastda@aol.com) or call me at my office at (503) 325-8581.