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Opinion: Time For Oregon To Pull Back On Measure 11’s Mandatory Minimums

By Martin Lockett

Lockett is serving the final year of a 17-year sentence at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.

Seventeen years ago, I drove drunk and crashed into a car that killed two people and injured another. I was 24.

At the time, I was working full-time and attending Portland Community College part-time. In full disclosure, I was no stranger to the law. I was finishing my final two months of post-prison supervision after serving three years for my part in a robbery when I was 19. Nonetheless, I had turned over a new leaf – until my troubled relationship with alcohol led me into the most catastrophic mistake one can make while intoxicated. My victims were in recovery themselves and to learn I had taken their lives was devastating.

While incarcerated, I focused on honoring my victims by doing all I could to help others who struggle with addiction. In order to do this, I knew I would need a formal education. I have earned a master’s degree in psychology and state certification as an alcohol and drug counselor. I have published two books and co-facilitated Mothers Against Drunk Driving-sponsored discussions with family members of those killed by drunk drivers at the Oregon State Correctional Institution. I produced a video of my story that is regularly shown at community panels. Moreover, I have never been written up for a transgression during my 17-year stay. I do not highlight these accomplishments to give myself a proverbial pat on the back but to say none of that will make a single day’s difference in my sentence. Like many others in Oregon’s prisons, I am serving a mandatory sentence which offers zero incentive to change.

My transformation was solely of my own doing, not because any mechanism in the system aided or encouraged it. My education was privately financed, and I was fortunate enough to land at the only prison in Oregon that enabled me to log clinical hours for certification. But I can assure you I am not an anomaly. There are countless others serving 10 – 30-year sentences under Measure 11 who are far different from their young drug-addicted selves who committed crimes decades ago. Yet they have no hope of returning to their communities anytime soon to offer them the benefit of their new knowledge. And while some take the opportunity to change, these lengthy sentences push many others even further into criminality. They know that violating institution rules won’t cost them their chance at a reduced sentence, because they aren’t eligible for it anyway.

I am deeply proud of how progressive Oregon can be when it comes to many things, most recently the decriminalization of possession of smaller quantities of drugs. Legislators also passed reforms to Measure 11 in 2019, recognizing how unfair and unproductive its heavy-handed treatment of juveniles was. Yet, the heart of this law, which dates back to the ’90s tough-on-crime, prison-building era persists.

Since then, many other states have rolled back their mandatory sentencing laws, having seen that harsh sentences don’t translate into safer communities. How is that Oregon still allows this outdated law to operate, needlessly locking up its citizens for decades at a time with no incentive to rehabilitate?

This is not a cry for anyone to feel sorry for me. I am still alive and my victims, sadly, are not. I will be released in June and will carry on with my life happily and productively. But this is not about me — it’s about our state. This is about all those who love Oregon and espouse compassion, particularly when it comes to the treatment of our neighbors. Are those who fall short not our neighbors and members of our communities? Are people deserving of second and third chances in rhetoric only? At what point do we demand our state lawmakers enact legislation that reflects these ideals and principles? When do we demand that our criminal justice system mirror the humanity and compassion we claim to value?

Laws are devised to hold offenders accountable and render justice for the victim. Yet, locking an offender up for 10 years with no incentive to change does neither. Justice can’t be delivered by a formula. And what amends are being made by someone locked in a cage for years, building anger at the system and waiting for their release to do what? Harm more people? When does it stop?

But when people have incentive to change by earning time off their sentence for completion of programs that are useful, chances are they will.

It is no longer 1995. The country has moved on from the tough-on-crime era. It is time for Oregon to catch up and rid itself of counterproductive mandatory minimum sentencing. When legislators convene next month, demand lawmakers take action on Measure 11 — finally.

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