IF HE COULD, Mike McClellan would vote this November for ballot measure 94, the voter initiative that hopes to dismantle Oregon's mandatory minimum sentence laws. But, even though he turned 18 this year, McClellan isn't allowed to vote, because at the age of 15 he was convicted of a felony as an adult.

The rest of the state's voters however, will have an opportunity to reconsider Measure 11--a ballot measure in 1995 that set up a minimum of five-plus years of jail time for certain crimes. Proponents of Measure 94 point to stories about juveniles thrown into the system for petty crimes; at the heart of the debate are the 350 youths currently housed in adult penitentiaries for so-called Measure 11 crimes.

But it is estimated that there is an even larger number of juveniles who, fearful of the long stretches of prison time mandated under Measure 11, have opted to accept plea bargain offers from the District Attorney's office for crimes outside the ambit of Measure 11. These plea bargains promise less jail time than the long stretches under Measure 11. But, because these juveniles are not convicted for Measure 11 crimes, there is a risk that their plight won't be considered in the debate this coming election. Critics worry that the full impact of Measure 11 will be underestimated.

In 1998, McClellan was arrested for stealing a pack of cigarettes. Because he maced his pursuer, the theft was categorized as armed robbery--a crime that falls within the ambit of Measure 11. Although it was his first offense, McClellan was looking at almost six years in adult prison.

He faced the unenviable choice between accepting a plea and admitting guilt to a felony, or gambling in court for almost six years in adult prison. In exchange for a guilty plea and about five months of hard time, the DA dropped the charge against McClellan to a crime outside the jurisdiction of Measure 11.

In effect, say critics, Measure 11 may have more impact in its threat and the additional leverage it provides the DA, than in its actual application. They point out that since its passage, the number of juveniles convicted in adult court has grown six-fold. The vast majority of these, they claim, are due to a flood of juvenile defendants accepting the DA's strong-arm plea bargains.

"If you are poor," explained State Representative JoAnn Bowman, "you are pretty much brow-beat to take a plea or go to court and take your chances." A former public defender, Bowman spearheads Measure 94.Assistant DA John Bradley maintains his support for the plea bargaining process. He told the Mercury that those decisions are made based on the specific factors in a particular case. He added, "as far as plea negotiations go, you want to encourage people to plea; we don't want to take everything to trial."

Even so, McClellan questions the harshness of bargains offered in lieu of Measure 11 sentences--bargains which he says seem to be the only option for those facing harder time. "When I was taking my plea," he said, "I remember the judge saying, 'For a pack of cigarettes?' It looked like even the judge thought I was getting a raw deal. There wasn't really anything he could do about it."