Time for Oregon to pull back on Measure 11’s mandatory minimums. An opinion piece by one of our featured writers, Martin Lockett in Oregon, published in The Oregonian.
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 onhonoring 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 theiryoung 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. Andwhat 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?
Butwhen 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.
In response to a letter we sent to Congressman DeFazio in Oregon, we received the following:
Dear Ms. Brown:
Thank you for contacting me about mandatory minimum sentencing. We are in complete agreement on this issue.
You will be pleased to know that I have consistently supported legislation to either reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. For example, I was a cosponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act last Congress. This bill would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses. The bill also would have directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review and amend its guidelines for sentencing and requires the Attorney General to submit a report on how cost savings from these changes will be used to further reduce prison overcrowding and invest in prevention, intervention, and improved law enforcement.
With federal prisons currently operating at between 35 and 40 percent above their rated capacity, there is no question our federal sentencing system needs reform. I have long had serious concerns about the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for non-violent first time drug offences. I have met with many judges who felt sentences they were required to hand down were excessive, but were unable to apply any discretion to the sentences because of mandatory minimum laws. The effects of such sentences from these failed policies are making hardened criminals out of non-violent offenders.
In place of mandatory minimums I support reinstating federal parole, among other policy options. I am also interested in alternatives to incarceration where appropriate. For example, I have always supported funding for drug treatment courts. Drug courts play an important role in breaking the cycle between drug abuse and crime. They combine substance abuse treatment, mandatory drug testing, sanctions and incentives, and transitional services to help substance-abusing offenders get back on their feet and prepare for re-entry into the community. These services are not only critical for past abusers by helping individuals become self-sufficient and contributing members of society, but drug courts also help build safer communities. Additionally, as a County Commissioner I fought hard to establish a work camp that served as an alternative to incarceration. I believe that it would be worthwhile to look into similar alternatives on a federal level.
Thanks again for contacting me. You can be sure I will continue to fight for long overdue reforms to our criminal justice system. Please keep in touch.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE PETER DeFAZIO
Fourth Congressional District, Oregon
We introduced you to our friend Martin Lockett in a previous blog post. We are thrilled to say that Martin will be a regular contributor both here and in our quarterly newsletter. Do yourself a favor and get this book!
Good people make mistakes. Martin Lockett is a good person who made an error in judgement which resulted in the deaths of two people. But for one red light, Martin might have escaped fate. After reading his memoir it is apparent that Lockett truly regrets the loss of life he caused but embraces his fate and his punishment without regret.
In Palpable Irony: Losing My Freedom to Find my Purpose, Lockett describes his journey from a shy, awkward young boy to a young man who falls in with some pretty rough characters just at that pivotal time when he’s coming into his own as an individual. The narrative – not only is it brutally honest, but also very well-written – makes one realize just how thin is that line between social failure and success.