Oregon Abolishes Death-in-Prison Sentences for ChildrenMay 24, 2019

Oregon lawmakers passed a bill yesterday that abolishes life-without-parole sentences for children and bars automatic adult prosecution of children.

Senate Bill 1008 reforms draconian and discriminatory provisions enacted by Oregon voters in 1994, when fear of juvenile crime was at an all-time high across the country. Recognizing that the feared juvenile crime wave never materialized, and that developments in neuroscience compel different treatment of children charged with crimes, lawmakers restored judicial discretion to decide when children may be tried as adults for major crimes.

Children convicted and sentenced to adult prison will now be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence, and the law creates a new mechanism for some juveniles to secure early release rather than be transferred to the adult prison system.

Governor Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, as well as retired judges, prison guards, and the Oregon Department of Corrections, supported the bill, which passed the House last night with bipartisan support and a two-thirds majority vote. It now goes to the governor, who "actively looks forward to signing it," her office said.

"As people who have worked with these youth, we know firsthand that a majority of them — when given the opportunities, support and guidance — have the capacity to grow and become productive members of our communities," representatives from the prison guards' union wrote to the Oregon House.

Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) supported the bill. He spoke on the floor about his work at a juvenile correctional facility. "I had a chance to work with these youths every single day," he said. "Here’s the reality: They're kids. They're kids who made a mistake."

A coalition of advocates and organizations supported SB 1008, including the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), the ACLU of Oregon, and Koch Industries. OJRC Executive Director Bobbin Singh said the legislation puts Oregon on the right track. "Moving toward a system based on what the science teaches us about brain development in young people and what actually works to reduce harm is the right choice," he said in a statement. "We all want to see accountability, but healing needs to be part of the equation."