At any given time, there are between 1,200 and 1,300 women detained in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), the only women’s prison in Oregon. About twelve percent of those women are serving prison terms dictated by a state law that local justice reform advocates say is too sweeping and severe, and that doesn’t take these women’s individual histories into account.
That law is ORS 137.700, more commonly known as Measure 11. Passed by Oregon voters in 1994, Measure 11 sets mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent crimes like murder, rape, assault, kidnapping, and armed robbery. It was passed at a time when other states, including California and Washington, were passing strict sentencing laws, and was often referred to as the “One Strike You’re Out” law in campaign literature.
The measure's mandatory minimum sentences require that people be incarcerated for a certain amount of time depending on the crime they are charged with—up to 30 years for murder—and apply to both adults and minors 15 years and older. Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences say they disproportionately affect minorities, and contribute to rising prison populations.
A report released last week by the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), a civil rights organization, shines a light on how Measure 11 affects women and teenagers in the criminal justice system.
The report, which compiles information and anecdotes shared during OJRC's 2018 Women in Prison Conference, draws a couple key conclusions: Measure 11 compels judges to ignore factors like abusive relationships and trauma when doling out sentences to women; and the law imposes harsh penalties on teenagers as young as 15.
“The whole purpose of the conference is really to talk about, who are these women being convicted of Measure 11 crimes?” said Bobbin Singh, the executive director and cofounder of OJRC. “We have a lot of women who are serving sentences that I think are largely disproportionate to what happened.”
Jennifer, a woman identified in the report as an inmate at CCCF, experienced severe physical and psychological abuse as a child, and became addicted to meth in her early teens. At age 15, she was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder—a crime she committed under the influence of meth, and which she said she did not remember doing.
Because Jennifer was charged with a Measure 11 crime and was over 14 at the time it was committed, she was automatically placed in the adult justice system, rather than being tried as a minor. Singh wants to see that part of the law changed first.
“We should have a justice system that doesn’t throw people away at ages 15, 16, and 17,” he said.
Singh said that once lawmakers start considering the negative impacts Measure 11 has on minors, it will be easier to convince them of the toll it takes on other populations, including incarcerated women. The report points out that often, women convicted of Measure 11 crimes were accomplices to abusive partners who committed the crimes, and have a history of trauma or addiction.
OJRC isn't alone in trying to overturn Measure 11. The ACLU of Oregon started advocating for its repeal last year, and the Oregon Supreme Court has overturned individual Measure 11 sentences in recent years.
“I don’t know if we’re close to actually repealing Measure 11,” Singh said. “But I think what we need to do is start thinking about, can we create opportunities for individuals to be able to present these histories as mitigating factors during sentencing.”
According to OJRC’s research, many women might not realize they were in an abusive relationship until after they receive counseling in prison. Singh said that these women should be able to present their histories after being sentenced, with the chance of seeing their sentences reduced.
OJRC doesn’t yet have hard numbers on how many women sentenced under Measure 11 suffered from abuse, addiction, or trauma at the time their crimes were committed; many of the points made in its report rely on heavy anecdotal evidence. Singh says the women prison population is often overlooked when it comes to academic research—which is why OJRC is partnering with Portland State University to conduct a comprehensive survey of women incarcerated at CCCF.
Singh said they plan to release the full results of that survey later this year, and will use that data to begin educating state lawmakers about the impact of Measure 11. In an area of policymaking often influenced by appeals to emotion and the “tough on crime” stance, he said, “our hope is to be able to use good information to direct good policy.”