These past 12 months

Seventy advocates from around the state came to Salem in April to speak with their legislators about smarter public safety policies that achieve accountability, invest in communities, and promote treatment and healing.

A year ago this month, all of us were alarmed to learn that the Oregon Department of Corrections was requesting another prison for women due to overcrowding.

But when 70% of women’s convictions are for addiction-driven drug and property crime, we knew that more prison beds weren’t the answer.

Together we rallied, letting lawmakers know that Oregonians statewide want policies that expand prevention, invest in healing, and hold people accountable without long prison sentences.

Legislators listened, and it will be at least 10 years before Oregon will have to consider opening another prison for women.

In fact, these last 12 months have ushered in several smart public safety policies. Here’s a rundown of the policies that have brought us closer to a system that reflects Oregon values of prevention, treatment, and healing.

Emergency Board denies funding for another women’s prison. Twice at the end of 2016, the Oregon Department of Corrections requested emergency funding from the legislature, and twice we advocated that the request be denied.

In a feature article on the impending threat, Deputy Director Shannon Wight spoke about the disconnect between our state’s values and its policies.

“Oregon is at a critical juncture: do we continue to use prisons as our default response to crime, or do we commit to curbing racial disparities, investing in community-based programs, and advancing effective public safety solutions?”

After hearing from constituents from across Oregon, lawmakers understood that the vast majority of the women in the prison were convicted of addiction-driven drug and property crimes. They decided that the prison’s population indeed needed to be addressed, but another facility wasn’t the answer.

Legislators said that they wanted to see a proposal during the 2017 session that would safely reduce the women’s prison population while still achieving accountability and maintaining public safety. We answered that challenge with:

The Safety and Savings Act (HB 3078). Our priority bill had several components that effectively achieve accountability while keeping more families together, reducing Oregon’s reliance on prisons, and reinvesting in our communities for treatment, services, and resources that survivors need to heal.

Rep. Tawna Sanchez and Rep. Carla Piluso were the bill’s champions and chief sponsors. A former service provider for incarcerated women and a former police chief respectively, together they brought a deep and thorough understanding of why the policy was critical for Oregon. In a joint op-ed, they wrote,

“Simply enforcing laws and putting people behind bars is not the same as creating public safety. For safe and strong families and communities, we must build on women’s resilience, not avoid the hard work of addressing addiction by simply removing them from our sight.”

HB 3078 is actually a fairly big bill with many parts, so if you’re interested in the details (e.g., how Family Sentencing Alternative was expanded, how 416 programs can decrease prison use, and who endorsed the bill), check out this one-pager.

The Safety and Savings Act was our priority bill during the 2017 session, but we also worked to support over half a dozen other bills this session together with our allies including ACLU of Oregon, Unite Oregon, Fair Shot Coalition, Disability Rights Oregon, One Oregon, and the Oregon Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Here’s a rundown of those proposals:

Defelonization and End Profiling Bill (HB 2355). Led by Unite Oregon, the ACLU of Oregon, and the Fair Shot for All Coalition, the bill accomplished two important things. First, it develops data tracking needed to help end racial profiling, which is a policy follow-up to HB 2002. HB 2002 was a 2015 bill that banned racial profiling, but it lacked a tool to track when and how officers were stopping people of color either while driving or walking.

HB 2355 introduces this tool, which will give law enforcement a better understanding of who, when, and why police officers are stopping individuals — a necessary step that will provide important information to address racial disparities in arrests in Oregon. In his testimony, Executive Director Andy Ko discussed the inescapability of implicit bias in all people, including those in law enforcement, and why we need systems to mitigate those biases.

“The impact of implicit bias in the operation of the criminal justice system has a far greater negative impact on individual lives and community wellbeing than in almost any other system. The arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of individuals disproportionately based on their race or ethnicity is a great injustice of our society and an ongoing threat to strong families and healthy communities.”

HB 2355 also defelonizes drug possession, which — it should be noted — is not the same as legalization. Rather it makes it a misdemeanor instead of a felony to possess small, personal-use amounts of drugs. However, if a person already has any felony on their record, or if a person has two prior misdemeanors for drug possession, then that drug user will still receive a felony conviction (i.e. a “three strikes” rule).

Andy also talked about this portion of the bill in his testimony, highlighting the severe consequences of felony convictions for personal-use amounts of drugs.

“By felonizing drug possession, we felonized a health disorder. Doing so raised profound and permanent barriers to future employment, housing, and forms of assistance for needy individuals and their families and even to community-based opportunities to seek addiction counseling and treatment.”

End Solitary for Youth as Punishment (SB 82). This bill ends the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement as punishment. Although the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) hasn’t officially allowed this method since 2005, SB 82 makes the ban official and applies it to anyone in custody at OYA, not just youth. (Youth convicted as minors are allowed to stay at OYA until age 25.)

The bill was initiated by OYA with strong advocacy support from Disability Rights Oregon. OYA had been convening a Use of Isolation Advisory Committee since 2015, on which Deputy Director Shannon Wight served. The group met quarterly to provide oversight and feedback on OYA’s efforts to reduce the use of isolation in its facilities.

In her testimony, Shannon discussed the traumatic impacts of solitary confinement, particularly among youth.

“It is well established that the use of isolation is harmful to the physical and mental health of youth and can result in aggravating existing mental health issues, particularly for youth who have histories of trauma and abuse. For these reasons, Oregon and other states are working to limit its use and develop more promising approaches to managing youth behavior.”  

Protecting Undocumented Residents (HB 3464). Oregon is a Sanctuary State, which means that the state and its municipalities are prohibited from using law enforcement resources to help federal officers seeking information about, access to, or detention of undocumented residents solely based on their immigrant status.

HB 3464 extends these protections by authorizing public bodies to decline to disclose information about a person’s citizenship or immigration status.

In his testimony in support of the bill, Executive Director Andy Ko talked about how all communities need reliable access to services in order to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. “HB 3464 will help ensure that children and families can access critical services and support without fear.”

The bill achieves this by including public schools, public health facilities, courthouses, public shelters, and other public facilities as bodies that can decline providing information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The bill was led by the One Oregon Coalition, of which PSJ is a part, and the ACLU of Oregon.

Sexual Assault Survivor Amnesty (SB 762). During incidences of sexual assault, alcohol is often a factor. For survivors who are under 21, the presence of alcohol can prevent them from seeking help or support following an assault. SB 762 protects survivors and those helping survivors after an assault by insulating them from prosecution for alcohol consumption if their drinking is disclosed during the process of reporting the assault to law enforcement.

Supporting a bill brought forth by the Oregon Student Association, Crime Survivor Program Director Amy Davidson’s testimony honed in on the critical need for this protection.

“Increasingly, professionals across disciplines are recognizing the barriers that victims face in reporting sexual assaults to law enforcement. We know that the vast majority of these assaults were facilitated by alcohol, but never reported. For the person who commits a sexual assault against an intoxicated minor, alcohol in not only a means to commit the crime, but also a way to later discredit the victim. Punishing any victim of sexual assault for any part of their victimization serves only to increase the harm of the crime and the likelihood that sexual assaults will go unreported.”

Grand Jury Recordation (SB 505). Before someone is formally charged in Oregon with a felony, the case is often first heard by a grand jury. These hearings are conducted solely by the prosecution with no participation by defense counsel. Up until now, those hearings were also not recorded, which was problematic because defense attorneys are kept in the dark about what led to the indictment. This failure to record these hearings creates a process without transparency, which degrades the public’s confidence in our justice system.

SB 505 was proposed by the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. In support of the bill, Executive Director Andy Ko’s testimony elaborated on how “A justice system lacking transparency or accountability in due process doesn’t serve crime survivors or those who have caused harm.”

“This bill creates safeguards to the confidentiality of crime victims by protecting information shared during deliberations and votes of grand juries. Records would also be exempt from public record laws. … SB 505 propose[s] that hearsay statements for minor victims should be allowed, which provide protections for children who might be retraumatized by having to come to court.

“The creation of a verbatim record of grand jury hearings brings accountability and transparency to a process that bears profound impact on the lives of those accused, the lives of those harmed, and the larger community.”

Survivor Facilitated Dialogue (SB 16). As a part of their healing, crime survivors sometimes seek communication with the person who harmed them. When this can happen on their terms, dialogue can support survivors on their path toward recovery. Sometimes for those who caused the hurt, a restorative process like facilitated dialogue offers one avenue for them to accept accountability for the pain and suffering they caused.

This bill was driven by the Oregon Department of Corrections, and its purpose was to shore up confidentiality within the agency for those facilitating these dialogues initiated by survivors. It ensures that both parties can speak freely under the protections of confidentiality. For those who may not want to meet face-to-face, SB 16 also creates a Letter Bank program to allow for written communication between survivors and the person who harmed them.

For this healing to occur, we need systems in place that ensure safety and confidentiality for both parties, and SB 16 institutes those policies. Crime Survivor Program Director Amy Davidson testified in support of this bill, drawing from her many years of experience in working with crime survivors and their families. 

“Practitioners of restorative process know that honest transference of information and story creates the strongest space for healing to occur for both sides of the harm. It is nearly impossible to achieve that level of honestly without the promise of confidentiality. The experience of losing control over one’s information relating to the intimate details of harm caused to them can essentially feel like re-victimization by the system to survivors.”

Individually and together, these new laws will advance our public safety system to one that prevents harm, promotes healing, and achieves accountability without over-reliance on prisons. 

Oregon made significant public safety strides over these last 12 months, but despite this progress, we were disheartened that one important bill did not pass this session.

End No-Cause Evictions (HB 2004). The lack of affordable housing has disrupted and uprooted many Oregon families. It’s a barrier that reduces public safety in a range of ways: survivors of intimate partner violence can’t find shelter that is immediate, safe, and affordable; people coming out of prison are faced with an additional barrier in rebuilding their lives; and working families are more at risk of homelessness, which compromises their health, stability, and safety.

The proposal to end no-cause evictions was lead by the Fair Shot Coalition. Crime Survivor Program Director Amy Davidson testified in support of this bill, elaborating on the profound risks faced by survivors of domestic violence who can’t afford safer housing.

“Today, most survivors will choose staying with their abusers to avoid the perils of homelessness. Other crime survivors will make the difficult choice of staying in unsafe living situations where drug abuse and other unsafe living conditions are present each day, putting themselves and their children at risk.”

We were disheartened that this bill didn’t pass, but we will continue to advocate for and support future efforts for affordable housing in Oregon.

Thanks again for your help these last 12 months. It’s been a great year for smarter public safety policies, and we look forward to working with you toward many more successes in the future.