The Oregon Supreme Court justices will decide whether sentence reductions passed in 2017 are constitutional.

PAMPLIN FILE PHOTO - Oregon Supreme Court in SalemSALEM — The Oregon Supreme Court has agreed to hear the state's appeal of a Clackamas County Circuit Court decision to block sentencing reforms the state Legislature passed in 2017.

The hearing is set for Sept. 13.

"We have asked for an expedited hearing in the Supreme Court so that we can settle this issue because it will impact both our prison use and our budget, if these … well-thought-out, very specific sentence reductions are thrown out by the court," said Rep. Jennifer Williamson, Democratic majority leader for the Oregon House of Representatives, during an interview at the Portland City Club Friday, April 20.

Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote and two crime victims from Oregon City and Sandy sued the state in November to stop enforcement of House Bill 3078.

The "Safety and Savings Bill" reduced sentences for identity theft and first-degree theft and put more money into offender housing, treatment and other support services.

The intent was focused largely on reducing the number of women sent to prison and avoiding the expense of opening a second women's prison.

Opening the mothballed Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum in Salem as a second state women's prison would cost about $17.5 million for start-up and operating costs for the first two years, said Jennifer Black, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Corrections. Incarcerating one person costs an average of about $108 per day.

"We can't continue to build prisons. It is an expensive way to not solve a problem of community safety," said Williamson, who represents Portland in the House.

A panel of Clackamas Circuit Court judges on Feb. 22 ruled that the legislation was unconstitutional because it was passed with only a simple majority vote.

The mandatory sentences for those crimes were approved by voters in 2008 via Measure 57. The Oregon Constitution requires at least a two-thirds majority vote by each chamber of the Legislative Assembly to change the voter-approved sentences, the court ruled.

The Oregon Department of Justice filed a notice of its intent to appeal the ruling March 15.

During the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers passed another bill, Senate Bill 1543, to hasten the case to the Supreme Court.

Lawmakers said they wanted a quick ruling so they could ensure sentencing uniformity between counties and to prepare for any increase or decrease in the prison population as a result of the court's decision.

With the agreement of the state, Foote and the other plaintiffs filed a motion March 16 in the Court of Appeals to certify the case to the Supreme Court.

"I'm confident, our lawyers have told us, outside lawyers have told us everything we did was perfectly legal, and this is a meritless case, but we'll wait and get a ruling from the Supreme Court, and we will address the issues if there are any addressed by the court," Williamson said.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
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