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November 4, 2010

Looking closely at the tougher sentences approved by Oregon voters in Measure 73

As detailed in this local commentary, which is headlined "Aftermath of Measure 73: Voters tell state to sober up on DUII," the citizens of Oregon used direct democracy to get tougher on drunk drivers and sex offenders.  Here are the details and some spin:

Oregon voters just passed another crime measure the state can't afford. That leaves the Legislature with two choices: Suspend this crime measure like the last one, or adapt to it.

Adapting is the only defensible choice.  In fact, Measure 73 may force the state to get smarter about impaired driving on the first arrest, rather than waiting for multiple arrests or fatalities to acknowledge problems with drug addiction, alcoholism and public safety.

Actually, let's talk in more human terms.  At least seven people died in apparent DUII crashes in Oregon during a three-week stretch in September.  Two teenagers struck dead in a Salem crosswalk.  Two grandparents hit in Klamath Falls. Two passengers killed near Florence. One driver dead in the Molalla River.  Seven lives ended, and for what? "If those were seven murders in 21 days, we would be outraged," says assistant attorney general Deena Ryerson, who specializes in drunken-driving cases for the state Department of Justice.

Voters warmly embraced Measure 73 in Tuesday's election, giving it an approval rating of 57 percent.  The citizen initiative is a classic populist concoction of tougher penalties for society's least sympathetic characters -- sex offenders and repeat drunken drivers.  Its passage was a sure thing from the moment it qualified for the ballot.

Surprisingly, the tougher penalties for sex offenders won't cost much money, since Oregon already locks up many of its worst offenders for life. The costly part is the provision requiring 90-day jail sentences for drunken drivers on their third DUII conviction.  Because of state sentencing guidelines for felonies, that 90-day sentence can turn into 13 months behind bars, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

"One thing to figure out is where to put those people," says Multnomah County Circuit Judge Eric Bloch, a leading voice on county DUII policy. Bloch worries the new measure (not to mention the state budget crisis) could undermine the success of the county's voluntary supervision program for repeat offenders, which lets judges use rewards and sanctions to force people to face their addictions....

Fortunately, Measure 73 isn't just an unfunded mandate.  It's also a call to action.  Several counties, including Multnomah, are finding earlier and more reliable ways to sort the chronic impaired drivers from those who are scared straight by their first DUII arrest.  That allows judges to zero in on drivers who pose a greater public safety threat -- whether because of indifference, addiction or both....

What's more, state lawmakers can use the next session to tweak the state's DUII laws in a few low-cost ways.  For example, they can tighten up the state's ignition interlock laws, which look tough on paper but fall apart in real life.  Since the cost of the interlock is paid mostly by drivers, it's an affordable way for Oregon to make the roads safer -- and it helps offenders in areas without adequate public transit get to work.

During the campaign, initiative sponsor Kevin Mannix expressed his frustration at the Legislature for refusing to take drunken driving more seriously.  Lawmakers often flinch at sanctions that might inconvenience the proverbial average drinker, upset the beverage lobby or require more than a couple days of jail for the first few arrests. "This measure," Mannix said in September, "is meant to wake folks up on drunk driving."

I hope he's right.  Set aside the wisdom of passing unfunded mandates during a budget crisis.  Remember those seven deaths in September, and ask what Oregon has to lose by trying something different.

Regular readers know that I have long be urging sentencing law and policy to "wake folks up on drunk driving," so I am pleased that Oregonians have made this chnage on their own. A mere 90 days as a mandataory jail term for the third drunk driving offense is the kind of measured mandatory minimum sentence I think should serve public policy and public safety well.

November 4, 2010 at 07:50 AM | Permalink


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I practice criminal defense in Oregon and there is some context people outside the state should be aware of before getting too excited about how reasonable this is. I have no problem with mandatory 90-day sentences for 3rd DUIIs. That said, the DUII provision is yoked to a poorly conceived and poorly written mandatory minimum for sex offenders that was opposed by groups from both sides of the aisle politically (including both Democrat and Republican candidates for governor, DV victims' advocacy groups, Oregon Youth Authority--the state youth correctional agency...the list goes on) and in the court room.

Measure 73 does not increase funding for incarceration in any way shape or form. Oregon jails and prisons are crowded, dangerous, and underfunded already (why the correctional officers' union opposed this measure)--this will only make the problem worse.

Posted by: Morgen | Nov 4, 2010 5:54:08 PM

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