Oregon Supreme Court Rules Criminal Justice Reforms by Legislature Can Stay
SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Supreme Court unanimously ruled today in State v. Vallin that the 2017 Safety and Savings Act was constitutionally enacted. This ruling ends regressive attempts by a number of district attorney offices, led by Clackamas County DA John Foote, to block important criminal sentencing modifications designed to prevent the need to open another state women’s prison.
“The court today affirmed that the Legislature has the power to do their job and update criminal justice and public safety policies based on new information, research, best practices, and budget constraints,” said david rogers, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. “When criminal justice policies are proven to be ineffective or too costly, we shouldn’t make it harder for our legislators to pass important reforms.”
Oregon’s Constitution requires that criminal sentences enacted by voters can only be legislatively amended by a supermajority vote. The court clarified today that this is not a permanent shield. The court ruled that once a supermajority of the legislature changes a criminal sentence created by the voters, the Legislature can make subsequent changes through the normal legislative process. This means that the simple majority that voted in support of the Safety and Savings Act did so validly.
“The Safety and Savings Act was a significant effort by the Legislature to bring commonsense reform to the state’s criminal justice system,” said Kimberly McCullough, policy director at the ACLU. “Legislators passed these modest reforms to de-emphasize prison use and spending, and to invest the resulting savings in treatment programs we know work. We are relieved the law was upheld.”
At the heart of the court’s decision is the interpretation of Article IV, section 33 of the Oregon Constitution. This provision, commonly known as “Measure 10,” passed in 1994. Measure 10 was crafted as an attempt to make it very difficult for the legislature to adjust a set of harsh mandatory minimum criminal sentences which also passed via ballot measure in 1994, via Measure 11.
“Although the proponents of Measure 10 pass themselves off as pro-democracy, the law was actually a clever attempt to lock in harsh and misinformed criminal justice policies for as long as possible.” rogers said. “It is incredibly difficult to get a two thirds supermajority of the Legislature to agree on any substantive issues. So while we now know that mandatory minimum sentences have been proven to be ineffective and incredibly expensive, lawmakers hands have been tied.”
Rogers said ballot measures are often blunt public policy tools. “Ballot measures focus narrowly on a specific issue, are not designed to predict the future, and can have unintended consequences. There needs to be a give and take between crafting law via the ballot and the Legislature. We need lawmakers to be able adjust laws passed via ballot measure to ensure the policies remain viable, safe, and effective. The court’s decision today affirms the need and ability for that give and take law-making relationship.”
“Measure 10 was passed 25 years ago and it would be very difficult to argue that it still reflects the will of the people,” rogers said. “Just last election in 2018, voters soundly rejected another super-majority restriction on legislative powers to address budgetary and revenue matters by voting down Measure 104. And Measure 104 had an even less restrictive majority limitation than Measure 10. It is time to move forward and let our elected leaders do what we elect them to do, create a better Oregon using the latest thinking and smart approaches.”
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