Mixed results for criminal justice reform bills in Oregon Legislature

Bills on traffic stops and paying wrongly convicted people are moving forward

By: - March 4, 2022 8:00 am

Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, seated, talks with Sen. Lew Frederick on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon will likely limit law enforcement’s ability to stop drivers and start paying wrongly convicted people for serving time for crimes they didn’t commit, but other legislative attempts to reform the criminal justice system have stalled.

Both the House and Senate this week approved Senate Bill 1510,  and Senate Bill 1584 could come up for a vote in the House as early as Friday. Proposals to give people in prison the right to vote, retry cases where people were convicted by non-unanimous juries and allow medically ill people to leave prison early are languishing in committees. 

“There’s some progress being made, but honestly, there are a lot of criminal justice bills that it looks like will not make it to the finish line this year,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.

Several proposals faced opposition from legislative Republicans, who have used them to paint Democrats as soft on crime, and from prosecutors. The executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association did not respond to written questions Thursday. 

Police stops

On one sunny day, Sen. Lew Frederick told his colleagues in the Senate on Tuesday, he turned left onto a street and almost immediately saw flashing police lights behind him. The officer who pulled him over was concerned about a white light on his taillight, recalled Frederick, D-Portland. 

Another time, an officer wanted to know why he was driving so slowly. Frederick, who is Black, was in his own neighborhood, preparing to park in front of his house. On Tuesday, he noticed a headlight going out on his car and now he’s concerned about driving until he gets it fixed, he told his colleagues.  

“Until my hair started to turn gray, I was pulled over once a year in my neighborhood,” he said. “The harassment that every Black man that I know has dealt with over the years is not because people have started necessarily coming out immediately with guns, but (because) they have been pulled over for very small offenses. Officially a tail light, a license plate light, a headlight.”

Nationally, police killed more than 400 unarmed drivers or passengers during traffic stops over the past five years, a 2021 New York Times investigation found. A 2021 report from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission showed that state troopers, who conduct most traffic stops, disproportionately stopped and cited Black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian and indigenous people. 

Supporters of SB 1510, including the Portland-based Partnership for Safety & Justice, seek to reduce the number of traffic stops, especially when there isn’t an immediate safety-related reason. 

“It’s a traumatic experience for people of color, particularly Black folks to be pulled over by officers because of the history of those stops going so wrong,” deputy director Shannon Wight said. “It’s lessening the tension and the harm that gets caused during those stops.” 

Under the proposal, Oregon law enforcement officers will no longer be allowed to stop people solely because one headlight, one tail light or one brake light is out, if a tail light isn’t red or if the light that illuminates the rear license plate doesn’t work. An officer could still cite a driver for lighting problems if they’re pulled over for another issue, such as speeding. 

Officers are also still free to stop drivers if a broken light prevents them from traveling safely, with the reasoning that a burned-out headlight that may not cause a significant issue on a city street on a clear night could be dangerous driving down a highway on a stormy one. 

Sen. Lynn Findley, a Vale Republican who voted against the bill along with every other Republican and two Democrats, said he didn’t understand how the prohibition would fix anything. 

“What evidence is there that this will even remotely solve a problem?” Findley asked. “Because they still have the full ability to pull over for unsafe operation of a vehicle. That’s why you stop someone for a headlight out or other light out.” 

The proposal would also require police to tell drivers they have the right to refuse a search of their vehicle, and a search could only proceed if the officer gets video, audio or written consent. 

Sen. Chris Gorsek, a retired police officer who now teaches criminal justice at Mount Hood Community College, said law enforcement has long had a problem with pretext stops, in which an officer stops a driver for a minor violation, like a taillight or not signaling, and then searches the car. 

“The problem is, most people in this country don’t realize that they can’t search whenever they want to,” said Gorsek, D-Troutdale. “There has to be probable cause.”

The bill also deals with post-conviction supervision and spends $10 million on addiction treatment, mental health services and other community programs that aim to keep people from going to prison. Oregon has an existing justice reinvestment program, but the $10 million is earmarked to specifically help people of color who advocates say aren’t helped by the current approach. 

Passing the bill won’t directly change the state’s probation, parole or post-prison supervision policies, but instead direct the Oregon Corrections Department to create new rules with input from people who are currently or previously part of those programs. Some who helped draft the bill pointed out problems with the current system, including having probation officers show up at their work, Wight said. 

“That creates stigma for someone who may have just gotten a job and was recently released from prison,” she said. “And people don’t need those kinds of barriers put in front of them.” 

Payment for wrongful conviction

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate strongly supported a separate plan to reimburse people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. 

Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said she came up with the idea, which she first introduced last year, after talking to a previously incarcerated person. National criminal justice groups helped fine tune the details, and if the House and Gov. Kate Brown approve the bill, it will bring Oregon in line with 37 other states that compensate wrongly convicted people. 

“The people who are wrongfully convicted are also victims if you think about it,” she said. “Just because they are in prison does not mean they are also not victims.” 

The measure would pay people who have been exonerated $65,000 per year they were behind bars and $25,000 per year of parole or that they were on a sex offender registry. 

There are 13 people in the state who would be eligible for compensation, said Laurie Roberts, state policy advocate with the Innocence Project, a national policy organization and legal clinic focused on exonerations. Based on the state’s current rate of exonerations, Oregon could see another new request for compensation every 18 months. 

Some states have had compensation laws in place for decades, but a push ramped up after then-President George W. Bush signed a 2004 law establishing compensation for people wrongly convicted in federal court, and then again in the past five years as the issue of wrongful convictions took on a higher profile, Roberts said. Oregon’s proposed $65,000 per year in prison is among the highest amounts in the country. 

Janis Puracal, executive director of the Portland-based Forensic Justice Project, worked with Thatcher on the bill. For Puracal, wrongful convictions are personal. 

Her brother, Jason, was arrested in Nicaragua in 2010 and charged with drug trafficking and international money laundering. He was sentenced to 22 years in a Nicaraguan prison and served two before the California Innocence Project took his case and was able to overturn the sentence because prosecutors had no compelling evidence. 

“Even after he was exonerated, he was still struggling for years to put his life back together,” Puracal said. “And so I watched this process play out and became very acutely aware of what exonerees go through.” 

Passing the bill will help Oregonians who were wrongly convicted of crimes to rebuild their lives, she said.

Not this year

Other criminal justice measures have failed to make it out of the House or the Senate, and in some cases advocates have no idea why. That’s the case for Senate Bill 1511, which would create a pathway for Oregonians convicted by non-unanimous juries to seek new trials. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that convictions by non-unanimous juries were unconstitutional. At the time, only Oregon still allowed the practice, as the other holdout, Louisiana, voted to end the practice in 2018. Last year, the Supreme Court clarified that its decision didn’t apply to past cases, but states were free to vacate past convictions. 

A group of senators worked out a compromise earlier this month that would allow people currently in prison and whose victims were adults to seek new trials. But since then, the bill’s sat untouched in the budget-writing Ways and Means Joint Committee. 

“In some ways, it would be better if they would simply send it out to be voted on, even if it was going to be voted against so we can see legislators’ stances,” said Chung, the ACLU executive director. “But instead of doing that, they’re just simply keeping us stuck in Ways and Means.” 

The ACLU will keep working on the issue, including by representing people who were convicted by non-unanimous juries in their petitions to the Oregon Supreme Court. If the Legislature doesn’t act this year and the courts don’t provide relief in the intervening months, the ACLU will push for legislation again when the Legislature returns in January, she said. 

Chung and other advocates are also disappointed by the lack of progress for a bill that would have restored voting rights to people currently serving prison sentences. Oregonians convicted of felonies lose the right to vote when incarcerated, though they immediately regain that right upon release. The House committee assigned the bill that would have restored voting rights hasn’t acted on it.

Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, made a last-ditch effort Thursday to pull the bill directly to the House floor for a vote. Only Wilde and Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, voted for it – Republicans opposed the bill, and most Democrats objected to the attempt to get around a committee chair’s decision not to hear the bill.

Wight, with the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said more than one legislative session often is needed to advance policy changes. The traffic stop and search measure her organization championed first appeared last year, but it took months of work to get it to the point where it could pass. 

“There are lots of really important conversations about needed reforms, and short sessions are often the time where we have those conversations,” she said. “But far fewer bills get over the finish line in a short session.”

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.