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Oregon governor commutes sentences of 74 prisoners convicted as teens, opening up possibility for early release

Dozens of people convicted of violent crimes as teenagers could be released early under a new order by Gov. Kate Brown.

SALEM, Ore. — Dozens of people convicted in Oregon of violent crimes when they were teenagers could be released from prison early after an order from Gov. Kate Brown.

On Oct. 20, the governor commuted the sentences for 74 people convicted of Measure 11 crimes. Passed in 1994, Measure 11 set mandatory minimum sentences for violent and sex-related crimes, including murder and rape, and required that children over the age of 15 who are charged with these crimes automatically be tried as adults. 

Measure 11 could only be changed by a two-thirds supermajority in the Oregon legislature. In 2019, that happened. A bipartisan effort passed Senate Bill 1008, which reformed the way teenagers age 15-17 are tried and sentenced. Under SB 1008, teenagers are no longer automatically tried as adults — that decision now goes to a judge. People convicted as teens are also now allowed a "second look" at their sentence after serving half of it, or the chance to go before a parole board and argue for early release after they've served 15 years. 

Senate Bill 1008 was championed by late State Sen. Jackie Winters, who said her husband Marc "Ted" Winters served time for crimes he committed as a teen.

"He would tell you that the department of corrections is no place for a juvenile," she said in a speech when lawmakers voted on SB 1008 in 2019. "How we treat our children is what our hallmark will be. Granted, there are those who should be held accountable, but there should be an opportunity for them to have a chance to better their lives."

As it was passed, SB 1008 was not retroactive, so people sentenced before it passed didn't have a chance at early release — until now. 

In an email, Gov. Brown's office said, "The governor is using her constitutional clemency powers to provide a small number of youth who didn't benefit from that legislation the opportunity to present their cases of transformation — either in front of the parole board through a parole hearing or in front of the governor through a clemency application. Although the governor's approach varies slightly for the two distinct groups being considered, these actions will result in these youth getting a similar consideration as their peers.

Reforms in youth sentencing have been underway across the country as new research emerges into brain science and adolescent develop that holds that teenagers are less in control of their actions than adults. Experts claim that teens have less impulse control and greater susceptibility to peer pressure, but also a tremendous capacity for growth and change as they mature. 

"In adolescence, the back part of our brain is connecting to the front part of our brain. That's where impulsivity and thrill seeking is at its peak. And that's often what's behind a lot of 'in the moment' situations that have gotten our young people in trouble," said Dr. Nick Sotelo, a treatment supervisor at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility.

Many male teenagers convicted of crimes are sent to MacLaren to serve their sentence until they are 25. Dr. Sotelo said most of them come from traumatic backgrounds, and being at MacLaren offers them structure they may not have had in their lives until then.

"A common theme is you've had kids that have had the fend for themselves," he said. At MacLaren, they have a schedule seven days a week, and participate in school, activities, and therapy. 

"We're actually giving them first experiences in a lot of ways. We're providing environments where they can have healthy attachment. We see kids that turn into young men ready to take on whatever the next phase of their life is going to bring to them. That's really what brings people like me back. I've been doing this for 22 years."

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When youth sentencing reforms are discussed, Kip Kinkel's name inevitably comes up. One of Oregon's most notorious murderers, Kinkel was 15 when he killed his parents and two classmates and injured 25 others at Thurston High School in Springfield in 1998. His name became a flashpoint in 2019 when Senate Bill 1008 was being discussed, with opponents insisting that Kinkel would be released if it passed. In response, lawmakers insisted that SB 1008 would not be retroactive, keeping Kinkel and others sentenced before 2019 behind bars.

RELATED: U.S. Supreme Court refuses to review sentence in Kip Kinkel school shooting

Jessica Schulberg, who spent months interviewing Kinkel for the Huffington Post, said Kinkel decided to do an interview with her because of the way his name was being used to keep other people locked up. 

"He was seeing how they were being denied a second chance because every time there was some type of reform measure that would come up, people would say, 'Oh, we can't pass that or Kip will get out of prison." 

Kinkel is excluded from the governor's order because of his 112-year prison sentence. The governor's office said each case will be reviewed individually and no decisions on early release will be made until December or January. 

Gabe Newland, the director and managing attorney of the Oregon Justice Resource Center's Youth Justice Project applauded the governor's action. 

"The governor is giving people a chance to prove the harm they caused as kids, however serious that harm is, doesn't reflect the character of the adult they have become now," Newland said.

Many prosecutors, though, are unhappy with the order, arguing they were promised that SB 1008 would not be retroactive, and that this order undermines that.

"[We were promised] that we wouldn't be dredging up old violent cases and picking the scab off of old wounds for victims who believed their case was long finalized... It completely ignores victims in the process," said Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson during a discussion on KGW's Straight Talk with Laural Porter.  

Families of people hurt or killed by the people on the governor's list are also upset. One of the people on the list is Todd Davilla, who killed Lisa Flormoe in 1991 when he was 16 years old. He stabbed her in the neck after breaking into her Wilsonville home and attempting to rape her. Davilla was sentenced to 50 years in prison, but could be up for early release. 

Lisa's sister Lorna said letting Davilla out of prison would be dangerous. 

"If people like Todd Davilla get out and they do something in the community, if they hurt people again, that's on Governor Brown's shoulders. And I would say that to her face. It's really, really disturbing."

RELATED: Straight Talk: Oregon inmates who committed serious crimes as teens get chance for early release through governor’s clemency order