New juvenile justice ‘reform’ is putting the public’s safety at risk

Multnomah County, Oregon DDA Mark McDonnell (Ret.) has this op-ed in Oregon Live with the above title. The article is addressed specifically to Oregon’s SB 1008 which essentially repealed a 1994 ballot measure, Measure 11. The concerns he raises are the same in many states, though.

The passage of SB 1008 returned Oregon to the system that existed prior to Measure 11. Instead of automatic prosecution of teens charged with these serious crimes in adult court, prosecutors have to ask a juvenile court judge to decide whether to retain the youth in the juvenile system or waive the accused to adult court.

During my 33-year career as a prosecutor, including five years as Multnomah County’s senior deputy district attorney in charge of the juvenile unit, I have personally handled and supervised other prosecutors in dozens of waiver cases. I can attest from experience that the waiver statutes are so vaguely written as to justify almost any decision. Under the waiver statutes, the court has nearly complete discretion over whether or not to treat a teen as an adult. That decision, however, carries grave consequences for the offender and for society.

If retained in the juvenile court system, the court has broad authority to remand the offender to the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority or release the person to probation. In any event, Oregon law requires that offenders retained in the juvenile system must be released from all state supervision upon reaching 25 years of age. As a consequence, an offender who commits murder at age 17 can serve no more than eight years in custody. On his or her 25th birthday, the person is free as a bird, not subject to parole or other form of supervision, and can legally present himself or herself as having no felony convictions.

In reality, however, most offenders will likely be released from custody substantially sooner, as Youth Authority officials attempt to “transition” the offender back into society. Regardless, the length of time is wholly inadequate to provide the treatment, counseling and self-reflection necessary to allow that offender to be safely released back into society.

When the Legislature considers any proposal to amend criminal justice statutes, the primary issue should be whether the change promotes public safety; i.e, will the public be safer if the proposed amendment is adopted. Tragically, in the case of SB 1008, the Legislature failed to adequately consider that question. Instead, the Legislature decided it was “unfair” to automatically charge violent offenders age 15 to 17 with adult crimes and subject them to adult prosecution and adult sentences, including those who commit murder. In adopting SB 1008, the Legislature ignored the impact to victims and their families, the safety of the public, and any notion of justice, not to mention the negative impact on other youth previously served by the Oregon Youth Authority.

Multnomah County is Portland and vicinity, the largest county in the state.