“This bill will finally get at protecting our community from the most dangerous of sexual criminals,” said Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, testifying in support of legislation he co-sponsored to enact a “two strikes and you’re out” law for repeat sex offenders.
The Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) reports that 4,475 (30.6 percent) of its 14,644 prisoners committed sex offences. Yet, as part of the tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s, Governor John Kitzhaber abolished prison-based sex offender treatment, so prisoners receive no treatment before being released.
“This type of criminal has haunted me for years,” Sen. Courtney said. “Hearing about these heinous crimes – many committed against children – really messed me up.” As early as 1991, Courtney began sponsoring bills requiring mandatory life sentences for sex offenders, but they died in committee. “People were concerned that they went too far,” he admitted during his 2017 testimony.
Nevertheless, in 2001, Oregon lawmakers finally enacted a “three strikes and you’re out” law, requiring life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for people convicted of a third sex offense. Contrary to Courtney’s claim that such laws target the “most dangerous of sexual criminals,” even flashers and other low-level offenders can be sentenced to LWOP under the statute if they have prior convictions.
Offenders who were not yet eligible for an LWOP sentence faced a mandatory 25-year prison term. As previously reported, however, some sentences imposed under that law have been found to be unconstitutional. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.12].
Three strikes was not enough for Courtney. Rather than fund prison-based sex offender treatment so released sex offenders are less likely to reoffend, he co-sponsored Senate Bill 1050 during the 2017 legislative session. With just 180 words of text, the bill enacted a “two strikes and you’re out” LWOP sentence for people convicted of a second offense for first-degree rape, sodomy or unlawful sexual penetration.
“I think all of us can feel the emotional pull of [Courtney’s] bill, because we share not only a revulsion for the crimes it addresses, but also a particular revulsion when we [see] these crimes repeated,” wrote Ken Nolley, a member of Oregon Voices – a nonprofit organization advocating for rational sex offender policies, which opposed the bill. “There is no reason to believe that even these people will be dangerous forever.... Locking such people up in perpetuity may satisfy our sense of moral outrage, but it does not make good policy.”
It also doesn’t make good financial sense. The total cost increases resulting from Courtney’s bill could be $1.6 million to $2.7 million per biennium, according to a legislative fiscal impact estimate. Of course, the actual cost is dependent on the life expectancy of those sentenced to LWOP under the new law.
It is unclear if Oregon lawmakers know, or even care, that research has long established a nearly zero recidivism rate for sex offenders over the age of 60. See: United States v. Wilkinson, 646 F.Supp.2d 194 (D. Mass. 2009) (“[A]ll of the evidence indicates that the risk of sexual recidivism declines with age ... for individuals convicted of multiple sex offenses, the risk of recidivism dramatically declines at age sixty and the consensus in the learned literature is that people over age sixty do not commit sexual offenses”).
Despite struggling and failing to overcome a $1.7 billion budget deficit, the legislature unanimously approved Courtney’s “two strikes” LWOP law. It passed the state Senate by a 30-0 vote and the House by a vote of 58-0, and was signed into law last August. It went into effect on January 1, 2018.
Sources: Statesman Journal, Senate Bill 1050 (2017), www.reason.com
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