Last October, Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, signed an executive order granting clemency to 73 people who had committed crimes as juveniles, clearing a path for them to apply for parole, reported The Guardian.
The move marked the high point in a remarkable arc: as Brown approaches the end of her second term in January, she has granted commutations or pardons to 1,147 people – more than all of Oregon’s governors from the last 50 years combined.
The story of clemency in Oregon is one of major societal developments colliding: the pressure the Covid-19 pandemic put on the prison system and growing momentum for criminal justice reform.
It’s also a story of a governor’s personal convictions and how she came to embrace clemency as a tool for criminal justice reform and as an act of grace, exercising the belief that compassionate mercy and ensuring public safety are not mutually exclusive.
“If you are confident that you can keep people safe, you’ve given victims the opportunity to have their voices heard and made sure their concerns are addressed, and individuals have gone through an extensive amount of rehabilitation and shown accountability, what is the point of continuing to incarcerate someone, other than retribution?” Brown said in a June interview.
When Brown, a Democrat, became governor in Oregon in 2015, she received the power of executive clemency – an umbrella term referring to the ability of American governors and the president to grant mercy to criminal defendants. Clemency includes pardons, which fully forgive someone who has committed a crime; commutations, which change prison sentences, often resulting in early release; reprieves, which pause punishment; and eliminating court-related fines and fees.
During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brown was one of 18 governors across the US who used clemency to quickly reduce prison populations in the hopes of curbing virus transmission.
She approved the early release of 963 people who had committed nonviolent crimes and met six additional criteria – not enough, according to estimates by the state’s department of corrections, to enable physical distancing, and far less than California, which released about 5,300 people, and New Jersey, which released 40% of its prison population.
But Brown’s clemency acts stand out in other ways. Brown removed one year from the sentences of 41 prisoners who worked as firefighters during the 2020 wildfire season, the most destructive in Oregon history.
She has pardoned 63 people. Most notably, she has commuted the sentences of 144 people convicted of crimes as serious as murder, yet have demonstrated “extraordinary evidence of rehabilitation”.
Democratic and Republican governors in North Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, Kansas and Ohio have granted clemency for similar reasons. Yet Brown’s numbers are among the highest in the US, and the impact of her decisions are profound: Oregon’s prison population declined for the first time since the passage of the state’s Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentencing law in 1994.
Measure 11 codified mandatory sentences for 16 violent crimes, required juveniles over the age of 15 charged with those crimes to be tried as adults, and ended earned time. Since its passage, Oregon’s prison population tripled to nearly 15,000 people and three new prisons were built.
Brown also stands out for who she grants clemency to. Forty per cent of Brown’s commutations are Black, in response to Black Oregonians being incarcerated at a rate five times higher than their share of the state’s population. Nearly two dozen other clemency recipients were convicted as juveniles. Many were sentenced to life without parole and other lengthy sentences.
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