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