Lawmakers consider proposal to lighten sentences against domestic violence survivors

The bill could potentially affect hundreds of the women who are currently incarcerated in Oregon

By: - February 6, 2023 6:00 am
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President Joe Biden nominated Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Amy Baggio to the federal bench in Oregon. (Getty Images)

Crystal Magaña grew up in an abusive home and was in and out of foster homes. At 14, she was forced into prostitution.

Seven years later she was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 16 and a half years in prison.

Magaña’s story is an example of the criminal justice system in Oregon and its intersection with defendants who are victims of domestic violence. A proposal in the Legislature this session would give the courts the discretion to give lesser sentences to cases involving victims of abuse.

“I got pregnant and gave birth at the age of 17, bouncing around from hotel room to hotel room and praying every day that I was going to breathe another breath,” Magaña said in a recent presentation to reporters and advocates about the proposal.

Sen. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, plans to introduce the legislation, which would allow the courts to consider evidence of domestic violence during sentencing and give judges the discretion to choose a lighter sentence than mandated under the state’s sentencing requirements. The bill would also allow people to petition the court for a new sentence if evidence of domestic abuse had not been introduced before sentencing.

“There is a group of survivors who remain ignored and subjected to continued abuse by the state through the criminal justice system,” Campos said. “We call them survivor-defendants, a term for defendants in criminal cases who are survivors of domestic violence and for whom that abuse was a contributing factor in the commission of their crimes.”

The concept could affect hundreds of women, with nearly 900 imprisoned in Oregon as of last October. In a survey of more than 140 incarcerated women in Oregon, about three-quarters of them were in a relationship when they were arrested. Of those, 44% said the relationship contributed to their crime, according to a report by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, an advocacy group that helped develop the proposal. The center’s Women’s Justice Project and Portland State University’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice worked on the survey in 2017 and 2018.

“I commonly hear from women about how they survived years of horrific domestic abuse and how that abuse was a pathway to incarceration, how they were convicted for acts done in response to their abusers, threats or coercion,” Julia Yoshimoto, attorney and director of the Women’s Justice Project of the resource center, said. “They share how the abuse was never adequately considered or never considered at all in their criminal cases, and how they and their children find themselves suffering through incarceration in a continuation of their domestic violence nightmare.”

The abuse can come in different forms. For Zuleyma Figueroa, a former Portland school teacher, a partner manipulated her to get involved with dealing drugs, Figueroa said.

“She gave me constant reassurance that everything was going to be fine, while slowly sowing seeds of doubt, rocking my confidence and breaking down my judgment,” she said.

In 2010, she was arrested for selling drugs and lost her teaching license. The woman took over her house, her possessions and her teaching pension, Figueroa said. 

“She came to my house and put a gun to my head,” Figueroa said. “She told me if I say anything, or call the police that she would make me or my sister disappear in an instant.”

As for Magaña, she now works as an ironworker and is rebuilding her relationship with her daughter. She said courts should consider the circumstances victims face and not convict them to  a minimum mandatory sentence as she was.

“If this bill was around when my crime happened, things could have looked a lot differently,” Magaña said.


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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.