Fifty years ago, Oregon’s violent crime rate was very low. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, in 1960 there were only 70 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. Between 1960 and 1985 this rate skyrocketed 690 percent and stayed high for 10 years.
In the middle of this 10-year period (1989), the Oregon Legislature adopted sentencing guidelines that shortened many violent crime sentences below their already short incarceration periods. For example, a sentence for a stranger-to-stranger forceful rape in the first degree could be as little as 28 months in prison.
I know this history well because I was an Oregon legislator when the Legislature passed these sentencing guidelines. I tried in two subsequent legislative sessions to increase the prison sentences for felony violent offenders. When the Legislature would not budge, I authored Ballot Measure 11.
Simply put, Measure 11 created mandatory minimum prison sentences for 16 felony violent and sex crimes. With the exception of murder, which carries a mandatory prison sentence of 25 years, there were no mandatory minimum sentences longer than 10 years. Voters overwhelmingly passed this measure in November, 1994 with a 66 percent yes vote. Not surprising to me, felony violent crime in Oregon began to drop, and it dropped year after year.
According to the Measure 11 report prepared by Crime Victims United of Oregon, “Oregon’s crime rate has consistently dropped every year from 1996 to 2002. During that period, Oregon experienced the largest drop in the violent crime rate (44 percent) of any state in the union. Violent crime in the United States as a whole decreased 28 percent. From 1995 to 2009, Oregon ranked second with a decrease of 51.2 percent.”
In 2012, Oregon ranked 40th in the nation for the violent index crime rate. In other words, Oregon is in the top 10 states in the country for low violent crime. I believe, as do others, that Measure 11 significantly contributed to this dramatic drop in violent crime in Oregon.
Over the past five years, I have closely followed the work of two different Governor’s Commissions on Public Safety. Frankly, individual members of these commissions pushed hard to eliminate or significantly reduce mandatory sentences for violent offenders set by voters 18 years ago. Fortunately, the proponents for shorter sentences for felony violent and felony sex offenders did not succeed. Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentences remain to this day and continue to help drive down the violent crime rate.
In the future, rather than trying to gut good sentencing policy that provides sentences proportional to the crime(s) committed, our Legislature and public safety agencies should focus on rehabilitation of offenders released from prison. We know that 25 percent to 30 percent of felony offenders commit a new felony within three years. By helping these offenders lead successful lives, the recidivism rate is reduced, prison costs are reduced and, most importantly, there are fewer crime victims.