New Oregon law means life sentences for second-strike sex offenders

Repeat rapists and certain sex offenders can now be given a "two strikes and you're out" ticket to life in prison under a bill recently passed by the Oregon Legislature.

Senate Bill 1050 imposes presumptive sentences for those convicted of first-degree rape, first-degree sodomy or first-degree unlawful sexual penetration if the defendant has been previously convicted of those crimes or an equivalent federal offense.

It also gives judges latitude to impose lighter sentences based on "substantial and compelling reasons."

The bill handily passed the Oregon Senate 30-0 and the House with a 58-0 vote.

"This bill will finally get at protecting our community from the most dangerous of sexual criminals," Senate President Peter Courtney said in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Courtney, who co-sponsored the bill, has long worked to impose stricter sentences on predatory sex offenders.

"This type of criminal has haunted me for years— since I served on Gov. Barbara Roberts’ task force regarding sex abuse crimes," he said. "Hearing about these heinous crimes— many committed against children— really messed me up."

His work on the task force led him to sponsor six bills in 1991 that became law that strengthened Oregon statutes with regard to sex crimes, especially against children.

He later sponsored two bills requiring mandatory life sentences for violent sex offenders. Both bills died in committee.

"People were concerned that they went too far," he said in his testimony.

Oregon Voices, a nonprofit community organization that advocates for rational sex offender policies and against mandatory sentencing laws, voiced their opposition to the bill.

"I think all of us can feel the emotional pull of (Courtney's) bill, because we share not only a revulsion for the crimes it addresses, but also a particular revulsion when we (see) these crimes repeated," wrote member Ken Nolley.

However, he said, the bill undoes the shift the criminal justice system has made toward a risk-based model— a more practical and effective way to protect society. Locking people up for their senior years is costly. Prisons have an expensive geriatric problem, and elderly offenders might not even pose a risk to society, he said.

"Locking such people up in perpetuity may satisfy our sense of moral outrage, but it does not make good policy," Nolley said.

Oregon is no stranger to sentencing sex offenders to life in prison.

In 2001, the legislature passed a "three strikes and you're out" bill. The bill created a presumptive sentence of life in prison for those convicted of three felony sex offenses. 

Under the law, even public flashers can be handed life sentences if they have previous convictions. Dennis James Davidson, 40, was arrested for masturbating at a Keizer park while in front of children. Due to his multiple previous convictions of public indecency and his lack of response to treatment, he was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison.

The Oregon Court of Appeals overturned his conviction and the Supreme Court upheld the court of appeals ruling, finding that the life sentence was unconstitutionally disproportionate to Davidson's crimes. He was resentenced in June to seven years and six months in prison.

The Supreme Court ruled another Salem man's life sentence for public indecency was constitutional because of his previous sex abuse and sodomy convictions. William Michael Althouse, 71, was arrested after being found pantless along a Salem jogging path. 

A registered sex offender, Althouse was about 150 feet from a middle school and near children while he exposed himself.

The Supreme Court found a life sentence— the second harshest sentence in Oregon— was allowable in light of the circumstances his current offense and his history of committing similar crimes against other young children.

The Criminal Justice Commission reviewed the Oregon Department of Corrections intake data from 2010 to 2016 and found 10 inmates with first-degree rape, sodomy or unlawful sexual penetration convictions who had previous serious sex crime convictions.

Currently, the people convicted of these crimes are sentenced to a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 25 years. The increased cost burden to the prison system would depend on an inmate's life expectancy. According to a legislative fiscal impact report, total cost increases could be $1.6 million to $2.7 million per biennium.

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodwort@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

© 2017 KGW-TV


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