District Attorney Josh Marquis supports a legal challenge to a new Oregon law that softens prison sentences for theft and identity theft.
The law is among several steps the state has taken to contain spending to house inmates for drug and property crimes and avoid building new prisons. Starting in January, it lowers the presumptive sentence for theft and identity theft to 13 months, down from 18 months.
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote and two crime victims filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court in Oregon City on Wednesday challenging the law. The suit claims the Legislature, under the state Constitution, needed two-thirds votes in the House and Senate to reduce criminal sentences approved by voters.
Measure 57, backed by voters in 2008, had increased prison sentences for drug and property crimes.
“I’m very supportive — for the record — of Mr. Foote‘s lawsuit,” Marquis said in an email. “Many elected DAs support him against the Legislature’s attempt to overrule an overwhelming vote of the people in 2008 as disgraceful.”
Last summer, Marquis described the bill as “hocking a huge loogie into the face of Oregon’s voters” and predicted a legal challenge if it became law.
Along with lowering sentences for theft and identity theft, the law extended short-term transitional leave for prison inmates to 120 days before their scheduled release dates, up from 90 days.
The law also expanded the eligibility criteria for the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program, hoping to reduce the surge in the women’s prison population.
The reforms are part of Oregon’s justice reinvestment initiative, a strategy to control prison spending and confront recidivism. The state has urged counties to supervise more drug and property offenders locally through jail, probation and drug abuse and mental health treatment, reserving prison for violent criminals.
Some prosecutors, like Marquis, have resisted.
Foote’s lawsuit rests on the reach of Measure 10, a 1994 ballot initiative that amended the state Constitution to require the two-thirds threshold for the Legislature on bills that reduce criminal sentences approved by voters.
The suit claims the new law is invalid and unenforceable because the House and Senate fell short of the vote threshold. Foote and the crime victims also argue that the suit defends the integrity of the ballot initiative process.
David Rogers, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said in an email that Foote “is engaging in classic scare tactics with how he describes modest sentencing reforms, while ignoring what most people know. The war on drugs is a failure and property crime is largely driven by addiction. We won’t break the cycle of crime by focusing on longer sentences and prison expansion. We need to focus on increasing treatment and prevention.
“Mr. Foote says he is concerned about victims, but he is trying to stop a law that was going to invest a million dollars in victim services. He says the Legislature is not reflecting voter interests, but we don’t know any Oregonians that want to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars opening a new women’s prison.”