Why Are Innocent Kids Pleading Guilty in Oregon? Blame Measure 11.

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For juveniles, Measure 11 creates injustice from start to finish.

Approved by Oregon voters in 1994, Measure 11 requires mandatory minimum prison sentences for a list of felonies, and it mandates that juveniles aged 15 and older are tried as adults if charged with these crimes.

The harsh penalties of Measure 11 are applied to juveniles without regard for the fact that adolescent brains are different from adult brains. The evolving science of brain development tells us that charging teenagers as adults unjustly holds them accountable for decisions that they’re not yet capable of making rationally. And long sentences imply that a teen cannot change and mature over the years, even decades, after committing their crime.

It’s also noteworthy that many juveniles in Measure 11 cases are charged with “aiding and abetting” crimes—for example, keeping watch outside a convenience store while an accomplice commits a robbery. These are not actions that should be condoned, but reasonable people recognize that a mandatory sentence of 5 years and 11 months for Robbery in the second degree is not proportional, especially when there’s evidence that the juvenile was coerced or pressured by an older peer.

Because of Measure 11’s punitive mandatory minimums, I frequently have to counsel my juvenile clients to take a plea deal (and say they are guilty) even when I believe they are innocent. The consequences of a Measure 11 conviction are just too high to risk going to trial.

This backward process removes the referee from the most important parts of the criminal justice process. Instead of getting tried by a jury and sentenced by a judge, most juveniles have their fates decided by district attorneys, who, because they decide what charges to bring, effectively determine whether a defendant goes to juvenile court or—because they are charged with a Measure 11 crime—to a mandatory adult trial. The Grand Jury hearing process is supposed to be a check on abuses, but it is also skewed. I am not permitted in the proceedings, for example, so my clients have no representation. The only perspective is that of the DA.

I don’t believe this is justice — and I don’t believe it makes our communities safer. We must do better.

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