Bill of the week: House Bill 2825
Chief sponsor: Rep. Anna Williams (D-Hood River).
What it would do: HB 2825 seeks to allow Oregon judges the discretion to reduce the sentence of a person convicted of a crime, if that person was subject to physical, psychological or sexual abuse by an intimate partner or family member. In order for the defendant to qualify for the sentence reduction, the abuse must have been a contributing factor to the criminal behavior, and the mandatory minimum sentence must be "unduly harsh" given the circumstances.
The bill would allow defendants who have already been sentenced to seek a retroactive review of their sentence. It applies to all crimes, including murder and sex offenses. Judges are not obligated to amend a sentence if they don't think the above criteria apply to the defendant.
The problem it would have solved: Consider the case of Cyntoia Brown, who was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery in 2006. When she was 16, Brown fatally shot a man in Tennessee who had solicited her for prostitution while she was a victim of human trafficking, according to The New York Times. She was then sentenced to life in prison.
Celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna rallied around Brown's case. Facing pressure from activists and Hollywood elites, Tennessee's governor granted Brown clemency in 2019. Brown's case inspired lawmakers throughout the U.S. to reevaluate sentencing laws for survivors of domestic violence. New York passed a similar law to HB 2825 in 2019.
Who supports it: Three Oregon district attorneys: Eve Costello of Klamath County, John Hummel of Deschutes County, and Matthew Ellis of Wasco County; Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal; the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association; and multiple domestic violence survivor organizations.
"Society disregards the traumatic experiences of survivors in a variety of ways," testified Rep. Williams, who previously worked as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. "But perhaps the most damaging way that our society does dismiss their concerns is that the criminal justice system is, at least in Oregon, blocked from considering the individual circumstances that lead survivors of violence to commit crimes under the coercion of an abusive partner."
A 2017 survey conducted by the Oregon Justice Resource Center showed that 65% of women incarcerated at the state's only women's prison who were in a relationship at the time of their arrest reported experiencing abuse in their relationship. Forty-four percent said the relationship contributed to their conviction.
Who opposes it: The Oregon District Attorneys Association.
Gina Skinner, a senior deputy district attorney in Washington County who prosecutes domestic violence cases, testified on behalf of ODAA that the DA's association is concerned the bill wouldn't require that a direct connection be established between the abuse defendants experienced and the crime they later committed.
"One of our biggest concerns is how broad this is going to be," Skinner said, "and how offenders who actually are serving a sentence for, perhaps, a domestic violence case will be wanting to re-sentence their case, reaching back to abuse that they may very well have experienced when they were a child, that does not necessarily have a direct correlation to the actual case that they have already been sentenced on, and that we will need to go back and reopen all of these old cases."
What happens next: During an April 13 meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas) announced that HB 2825 would be punted to a work session to be chaired by Williams and reintroduced in February 2022.
"People need to be accountable for the mistakes that they've made, especially when those mistakes have harmed others. And at the same time, we can imagine a system of justice that takes into account the manipulation and violence that led them to where they are," said Bynum, who chairs the committee. "Because of laws currently in place in this state, such an act of compassion is a major lift requiring a three-fifths majority vote to pass both chambers. We're not there today and we have a lot of work to do before we can get there. I am personally not ready to give up on this."
The Multnomah County District Attorney's Office declined to say whether DA Mike Schmidt supports the bill.
"In light of today's developments, we look forward to engaging the stakeholders on this important concept in the interim," spokesman Brent Weisberg said Tuesday afternoon.