Seeking Justice at the City Club

The City Club of Portland is not where you will find the poor and the destitute.

This is a members-only civic organization where you will find community leaders and activists, business owners, various professionals and elected officials who meet for lunch and conversation.

Each week they gather at the elegant Sentinel Hotel for the Friday Forum where they listen to speakers discuss current events and issues affecting the community. Non-members like me can pay $15 to attend.

The poor and the destitute don’t have a lot of discretionary income so they missed a Friday Forum discussion on a topic that affects them more than anyone else: reducing minimum-mandatory prison sentences for violent crime.

It seems that everyone from the National Police Chiefs Association to the ACLU have found something to agree on: Prison doesn’t work. Even the infamous Koch brothers have gone on record opposing “mass incarceration.”

For the past several years, the national media have piled on with one story after another, and one study after another, proving that prison sentences should be reduced and, for property and drug crimes, possibly eliminated entirely.

Building on that narrative, the City Club invited a panel of four advocates who support dismantling Oregon’s Measure 11, which sets minimum-mandatory sentences for some violent crimes. Specifically, the organization’s agenda was couched in these terms as expressed by City Club president Courtney Nelson: To assess Measure 11’s effect on communities of color.

Nelson seemed to be assuming that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be serving Measure 11 sentences because of their race — not because of the violent crimes they have committed.

The City Club invited Bobbin Singh, Executive Director of Oregon Justice Resource Center, who acted as moderator; Shannon Wight, Deputy Director of Partnership for Safety and Justice (formerly called the Western Prison Project, a more accurate description of what it does, which is lobby for prisoner’s rights), and David Rogers, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oregon.

The fourth panelist, Lucy Flores, former Nevada State Assemblywoman, was a curious choice. She was soundly defeated in her last election and now lives in L.A., but she’s opposed to minimum-mandatory sentences so she fit the bill.

After an hour’s worth of discussion, I heard nothing that I haven’t heard repeatedly on NPR or in any of the major news media for the past several years.

Typical was a set-up question by Singh to the ACLU’s Rogers, asking about the political climate leading up to Measure 11.

“Several U.S. cities experienced a spike in juvenile crime…,” Rogers said. “The media had a field day warning that these super-predators were going to increase in number.”

He referred to five “youth of color” who falsely confessed to gang-raping a jogger. If Rogers was referring to the Central Park Five, he failed to note that these young men implicated one another. Initially, they couldn’t provide alibis because they were in the park committing other crimes – but it’s true they didn’t rape the jogger.

Rogers also referred to a local case “involving a white guy beat up by three guys.” He didn’t offer the names of the victim or his attackers, so there was no way to check on his assertion that the resulting publicity was an outrageous injustice.

Nor did he mention the extent of the victim’s injuries. (I’ve known victims of aggravated assault and attempted murder who were left with profound, life-altering injuries.)

According to Rogers, there was a public outcry about this case, apparently because two of the attackers were tried as juveniles instead of adults. It was this kind of over-the-top publicity of a high-profile crime, he said, that led the public to vote for Measure 11.

What none of the City Club’s panelists mentioned is how the legislature has been chipping away at Measure 11. That’s where the poor and destitute come in.

Gov. John Kitzhaber in his third term created a Commission on Public Safety to ostensibly find ways to lower prison costs. It was clear from the first meeting on Sept. 30, 2011 that the commission’s target was Measure 11.

Among those testifying was Craig Prins, then-executive director of Oregon’s Criminal Justice Commission (the names of these various commissions don’t necessarily describe what they really do).

Prins flipped through charts and graphs showing that crime had decreased dramatically in Oregon and the nation. He pointed out that it isn’t just criminals who are poor. So are victims.

“The poor and destitute … have received the benefit of this drop in crime,” he said.

This was a striking observation. Given the context, it was like saying everyone is paying high prison costs, but the poor are the ones benefiting.

It’s no wonder some legislators are looking for ways to tinker with Measure 11. They don’t have the same concerns about crime as some of their constituents.

The speakers at the City Club didn’t dwell on crime’s victims. They called for an end to minimum-mandatory sentences and considered District Attorneys to be their major stumbling block.

“DAs are the most powerful people in the criminal justice system,” Rogers told the audience. “We have forgotten they are elected.”

He is wrong. Power is always shifting. Sometimes the most powerful people in the criminal justice system are criminals.

That’s what voters in Oregon and across the nation rebelled against when they passed initiatives like Measure 11 and three-strike laws.

When Rogers was giving his version of history, he didn’t include truth in sentencing – how even violent criminals didn’t come close to serving the sentences they were given.

Here’s a pre-Measure 11, high-profile crime Rogers didn’t mention: In 1975 a disgruntled former state police officer named Robert Wampler approached State Police Superintendent Holly Holcomb on the steps of the Public Service Building in Salem, chatted with him briefly and then shot him dead.

Wampler was convicted of murder and received a “life sentence.” How much time did he actually serve? Less than eight years. He got out and lived the life of a beloved grandfather, working in the family’s dry-cleaning business, until he died at age 81 in 1997.

This is the world that Rogers, Singh, et al would prefer to live in.

It’s appropriate that the City Club should meet at the historic Sentinel Hotel (formerly the Governor Hotel). Stroll through the lobby and the hallways, look at the photos, and you can revisit a gentler time when a Measure 11 wasn’t needed. Notice the dress and demeanor of the people in mid-20th Century America.

There wasn’t a heroin or meth epidemic in those days. Heroin was a problem only in the black community and, consequently, ignored. Now drugs are everywhere. We have a drug-addled underclass that gets by on crime. They spread misery among the poor and destitute, and help keep them poor and destitute.

Many of these victims are quickly forgotten by the media and general public. They are not forgotten by everyone, though.

Voters seem inclined to remember them.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

Related:

A Jury Verdict and a Moral Awakening

Deep in the Heart of Oregon

10 Comments

  • Having apparently learned absolutely NOTHING from the elections (not just Trump but the rejection of abolishing the death penalty in blue California and other down-ballot votes) these advocates for the oppressors posing as ever victims have decided there was a massive conspiracy to prevent this forum from being broadcast on OPB. That network apparently does sometimes broadcast City Club events but likely felt a pep rally for criminals wasn’t worth the air time. You would thing the ACLU and its intricately conjoined Soros-funded groups had been denied the right to vote!
    Get over it and as HTA points out, Measure 11 has in fact taken race OUT of the equation in serious violent crime sentencing

  • The Oregon Justice Resource Center has posted a letter on its website and Facebook page that they sent to OPB, protesting the station’s decision not to broadcast this particular Friday Forum.

    The letter to OPB makes the kind statement that is often repeated in the media: “(P)eople of color are over-represented in our prisons and jails. … Oregon has the seventh highest rate of African-American imprisonment in the nation… . ”

    The statement implies that these inmates are in prison solely because they are black. These are questions the media (and City Club panelists) need to ask if they really want to explore this subject:

    Are young black men more violent? If so, what do we do about it? Should we set up a quota system, whereby once a state has convicted X-number of black felons, that’s it for the year? Or should the state start letting black inmates out early (even if they haven’t served their time)?

    What kind of impact would it have on the black community if black offenders knew they were going to be cut loose and that laws would not apply to them?

    As you point out, Measure 11 has made sentencing more equitable because white violent offenders have to serve the same minimum-mandatory sentences.

  • City Club fan wrote:

    I used to be a regular at the City club. My work took me to another part of the state but I stop by the Friday Form if I’m in town. They’re good people who want to be involved. Your right the members aren’t poor and destitute. The club does provide outreach to less fortunate. They invite groups of high school students from less advantaged schools who attend the talk and lunch for free. Not sure what happened at with this Measure 11 program. I wasn’t in town. An old friend was there. She had no problem with it but she doesn’t like Measure 11.

    The club’s had a political misstep the past election season when they ignored one of the races. My only complaint when I was a regular was the forum doesn’t allow more questions. Some of the club’s members are smarter than the speakers.

  • You are correct. The club has a Civic Scholars program where (according to the club’s website) the organization brings students from six Portland high schools – Parkrose, Madison, Jefferson, David Douglas, Early College Academy at NAYA, and Roosevelt – to the Friday Forums:

    “At each Friday Forum high school students ask questions at the microphone, are offered a private Q&A with the speaker, and sit with City Club members involved in education, business, and law.”

    At this particular Friday Forum, the students were from NAYA. Only a few people got to ask questions, and it didn’t look any of them were students.

    The idea that the students may have later had a private Q & A with these panelists – who were all opposed to Measure 11 – is a little concerning. Perhaps somewhere along the way they will hear another side to the issue and realize they don’t have to treat criminals like victims.

  • I do not believe that you can talk to American Progressives and I am unwilling to be violent. That leaves taking notes and data collection. Witnessing.

  • I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite links that various people have sent me.

    One is from the Sept. 23 New York Times, “Will the Left Survive the Millenials?” Reading it now, post-election, different lines jump out — like this one:

    “Liberals have ominously relabeled themselves ‘progressives,’ forsaking a noun that had its roots in ‘liber,’ meaning free. To progress is merely to go forward, and you can go forward into a pit.”

    Portland’s progressives refuse to learn from the mistakes of other progressive cities like San Francisco and New York, and we don’t have anywhere near their wealth. In the Dec. 12 New Yorker, there’s a profile of Ritchie Torres, the youngest city councilman in New York City. The story, “Bronx Tale,” is summarized as “A young progressive addresses poverty on his home turf.”

    Torres grew up in one of the large public-housing projects, where his mother still lives. The story mentions that of Torres’s 50 colleagues on New York’s City Council, 48 are Democrats. Torres’s big cause is public housing. In the presidential primary, he met Bernie Sanders and told him about conditions in the housing projects and that the city needed $17 billion to repair them.

    “Torres said that Sanders looked shocked and asked, ‘Is that billions with a ‘b’?”

    Generation after generation after generation cannot get out of government-provided public housing in New York. The progressives don’t ask themselves if they are doing something that is helping the poor stay poor.

  • I couldn’t stop myself. Anyway here is a pioneering baseball sabermatician’s take on matters:

    http://www.billjamesonline.com/the_oh_grow_up_election/

  • I was in prison with a kid who was there on a Measure 11 beef. He was a good kid, believe it or not, from a good family. The story was that he was at a teenage party where there was, of course, alcohol. He would up getting in a fight with another kid. The other kid ended up falling off a balcony and sustaining serious, but non-life threatening injuries. Initially, the DAs office wasn’t going to press for Measure 11 charges given that the winner of the fight didn’t exactly fit the profile of a wanton criminal, but rather, that of a typical kid who had made a tragic mistake, but the victim’s family happened to have money and influence, and they somehow convinced the DAs office to go for the more serious Measure 11 charges. To really know how Measure 11 plays out, you have to talk to the kids individually who end up in prison for ten years to really find out. Are there some cases, even a lot of cases, maybe even most cases more clear cut than this one? I’m sure there are. Nevertheless, when you have a one-size-fits-all law like Measure 11, you’re going to end up destroying a lot of lives unnecessarily.

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