Crime Victims United and Oregon's Criminal Justice System
This article was written for the April 2005 issue of The Rap Sheet, the newsletter of the Portland Police Association. The full newsletter can be see at the Portland Police Association web site.
By Howard Rodstein, Crime Victims United policy analyst
Crime Victims United was founded in 1983 by members of the support group Parents of Murdered Children. Chief among the founders were Bob and Dee Dee Kouns whose daughter Valerie had been abducted in San Francisco in 1980 by career criminals, never to be seen alive again. The Kouns went to the Portland chapter of Parents of Murdered Children seeking comfort from others who suffered similar tragedies. There they discovered that crime victims were often re-victimized by a criminal justice system that had lost its compass.
Crime Victims United's mission was "To promote a more balanced justice system through legislative action and public awareness." This was a tall order.
By the early 1980's, violent crime in Oregon was out of control. From 1960 through 1985, the violent crime rate increased by a factor of 7.9. Political leaders and ordinary Oregonians seemed to be indifferent. During this period Oregon built one new prison with a capacity of 400 beds. Releases due to prison overcrowding and the parole system, under which judges pronounced long sentences of which criminals served a small fraction, had turned the criminal justice system into a joke.
In 1984 members of Crime Victims United and their supporters personally gathered tens of thousands of signatures to put Measure 8 on the ballot. Measure 8 proposed the creation of statutory laws ensuring the basic rights of crime victims, such as the right to be notified of hearings, to be present at trial and to speak at sentencing. It also addressed issues in the areas of police stops and search warrants, trial and sentencing procedure and parole. With strong opposition from an organization funded by defense lawyers, Measure 8 was defeated by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.
In 1986 members and supporters once again hit the streets to gather signatures for Measure 10, another attempt to gain statutory rights for crime victims and address issues of trial and sentencing procedure and parole. Voters approved Measure 10 by a margin of 75 percent to 25 percent and victims' rights become part of state law. However defense attorneys lost no time in attacking the statutory rights established under Measure 10 on the grounds that they were trumped by the constitutional rights of criminal defendants and convicted criminals.
By the end of the 1980's, the problem of chaos in the criminal justice system could no longer be swept under the rug. Governor Neil Goldschmidt promised to slow the criminal justice revolving door and return some credibility to the system with long overdue prison construction. The parole system was abandoned in favor of sentencing guidelines which enhanced "truth-in-sentencing" but were designed primarily to keep the prison population in line with available prison space. Crime Victims United cofounder Dee Dee Kouns participated in the sentencing guidelines workgroup but warned that the short prison terms, as little as 8 years for murder, did not square with voters' sense of justice.
In 1994 Crime Victims United actively supported three ballot measure: Measure 10 (requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislators to change sentences set by the voters), Measure 11 (setting minimum mandatory sentences for violent crimes and serious sex offenses and requiring that juveniles 15 and older be tried as adults for these crimes) and Measure 17 (requiring that prisoners work or participate in school or training). All three measures passed with Measure 11 passing by a 66 percent to 34 percent margin.
In 1995 the group joined partners across the state, led by then Attorney General Ted Kulongoski, in crafting Senate Bill 1, a response to escalating and out-of-control juvenile crime. Senate Bill 1 completely revamped the juvenile justice system, placing emphasis on accountability, and created the Oregon Youth Authority.
In 1996, Crime Victims United cofounders Bob and Dee Dee Kouns and others prevailed on the Oregon Legislature to refer Measure 26 to the voters. This measure changed the core principles of criminal justice in Oregon. Previously, Article I, Section 15 of the Oregon Constitution said:
Laws for the punishment of crime shall be founded on the principles of reformation, and not of vindictive justice.
Measure 26, which passed with 66 percent of the vote, changed this to:
Laws for the punishment of crime shall be founded on these principles: protection of society, personal responsibility, accountability for one's actions and reformation.
That same year, Measure 40 was passed with 59 percent voter support. It put basic victims' rights into the Oregon Constitution where, it seemed, they would be immune to attack on constitutional grounds. It also addressed issues of relevant evidence and trial and sentencing procedure.
In 1997 Crime Victims United conceived and sponsored Senate Bill 614, which completely revised Oregon's child abuse and murder statutes. It also sponsored Senate Bill 1049 which gave judges discretion in certain Measure 11 cases of Assault II, Robbery II and Kidnapping II.
In 1998 the Oregon Supreme Court overturned Measure 40 on narrow technical grounds. Victims' rights were once again stymied in Oregon.
In 1999, Crime Victims United and other groups sponsored Measures 69-75, yet another attempt to gain basic rights for Oregon's crime victims and address trial and sentencing issues. This led to a bitter election campaign in which opponents came up with the strategy of setting up a counter-victims' rights group - a group of victims who would oppose all constitutional rights for victims, even the right to be present at trial. Four of the seven ballot measures passed.
In 2000 friends and relatives of criminals and others who felt that the pendulum had swung too far put Measure 94 on the ballot. Measure 94 would have retroactively repealed Measure 11 and triggered the release of 800 violent criminals and serious sex offenders within 90 days, with many more to follow not long after. Crime Victims United took the lead in opposing Measure 94, whose supporters flooded the media with disinformation. The voters of Oregon defeated Measure 94 by a margin of 74 percent to 26 percent.
In 2001 Crime Victims United sponsored House Bill 2379 which gave judges discretion in certain Measure 11 cases involving non-forcible sex offenses.
During the 2003 legislative session Crime Victims United worked on a number of bills relating to DUII, several of which passed. Among them was "Brian's Bill", named after Brian Hood, the son of members Anne and Bruce Pratt, who was killed by a drunk driver. Brian's bill increased the sentence for DUII-related Criminally Negligent Homicide.
In addition to working on legislation and ballot measures, Crime Victims United members have worked with government for decades to improve the quality of public safety and the treatment of victims. They served on the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the Oregon Youth Authority Executive Advisory Board, the Governor's Task Force on Juvenile Crime, the Attorney General's Task Force on Restitution, the Project Safe Neighborhoods Executive Committee, and in many other capacities.
Crime Victims United has also worked with hundreds of individual victims, helping them navigate through the bureaucracy to seek justice from the criminal justice system.
In 1997 founders Bob and Dee Dee Kouns retired after devoting 14 years to the organization. Current President Steve Doell joined Crime Victims United in 1993 after witnessing how the criminal justice system dealt with the violent youth who murdered his 12-year old daughter, Lisa Doell. Crime Victims United cofounder Bob Kouns died of cancer in 2004 but remains an inspiration to all who follow in his footsteps.
In the 2005 legislative session, Crime Victims United once again faces legislative challenges to Measure 11 and other attempts to reverse the pendulum of criminal justice in Oregon.
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