Oregon’s Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a law to decrease sentences for repeat property thieves.

Justices agreed that the Legislature’s change to state sentencing laws, which included reducing the base sentence for first-degree theft from 18 months to 13 months, was done according to state requirements. Lawmakers made the change in 2017 via House Bill 3028 to prevent the need to open a second state women’s prison, though the law applies to all genders.

The new law put the Legislature at odds with some in Oregon’s law enforcement and judicial community. Across the state, circuit judges and district attorneys were imposing different sentences based on their own interpretation of the law.

Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote sued the state in November 2017 to block the law, while Santiago Vallin, a repeat property thief from Lincoln County, sued the state in 2017 to overturn a sentence by a circuit judge who disregarded House Bill 3078.

The Supreme Court heard both cases during a joint hearing Sept. 13, but justices issued an opinion only on the Vallin case Thursday, Jan. 31.

Attorneys for Clackamas County and Lincoln County district attorneys argued that the Legislature’s changes were illegal. The original sentence was approved by voters in Measure 57 in 2008. Oregon’s Constitution requires the Legislature to have a two-thirds majority vote to change a voter-approved sentence, and House Bill 3078 had only a simple majority.

The bill reduced the base sentence for first-degree theft from 18 months to 13 months. But legislators had already reduced the sentence with a two-thirds majority vote from 18 months to 13 months in 2009. They made the change because the state was in the midst of a recession, and they doubted whether they could pay for the cost of incarcerating thieves for longer periods of time, according to court documents.

The 2009 legislation gradually increased the sentence to 18 months during a two-year period. That sentence remained in effect until House Bill 3078 was adopted.

In September, the state argued that the Legislature needed only a simple majority vote to change the sentence in 2017 because legislators had already changed the voter-approved sentence with a two-thirds majority in 2009.

The Supreme Court agreed with them. In its opinion, Chief Justice Martha Walters wrote that once the Legislature has a two-thirds majority vote to reduce a voter-approved sentence, “the resulting sentence has been enacted by the Legislature, ‘not approved by the people.’”

“It was the Legislature, and not the people, who put (the sentences) in place … when the Legislature enacted the 2009 bill,” she wrote.

Damaged initiative process

Thursday’s decision resolves the controversy among law enforcement and allows uniformity in sentencing.

Foote said he would follow the court’s ruling. “While we are disappointed in their decision today, we continue to believe that it is very important that the decisions of the Oregon Legislature be open and transparent to the public,” Foote said in a statement. “Our legal challenge made sure that happened.”

“We are very concerned that the unique power of Oregon’s initiative process has been badly damaged by the actions of the Oregon Legislature and the court’s decision today, and we are further concerned that the strong sentences overwhelmingly passed by the voters in Ballot Measure 57 for repeat felony property offenders will continue to be reduced by the Oregon Legislature.”

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said the decision allows the Legislature to build on its plan to move away from long prison sentences and toward rehabilitative programs.

“Today’s unanimous decision by the Oregon Supreme Court upholding House Bill 3078 is a very positive step forward for our state,” said Williamson.

“The failed policies of the past will not hold us back from reforming our broken criminal justice system. Thanks to this ruling, we can continue to make investments in effective treatment programs that make our communities safer and ensure that we continue to bend the cost-curve on ballooning corrections budgets.”

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Paris Achen: pachen@portlandtribune.com or 503-506-0067. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.

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