By Hannah Hoffman
Some sex offenders could be subject to mandatory life sentences without parole — a sentence currently reserved exclusively for murderers — under a bill introduced by Senate President Peter Courtney.
Senate Bill 1517 wasn’t the product of lobbying by law enforcement, parent groups or the Department of Corrections, Courtney said. It was his idea and bubbled up from an experience he had years ago, serving on former Gov. Barbara Roberts’ task force on child sex abuse.
“It messed me up for a while,” he said. “I learned a lot of lessons from that. There are sex offenders, and then there are predatory sex offenders ... I’m not convinced you can cure what’s going on inside them. I think they’re very, very dangerous.”
The bill applies only to three crimes: first-degree rape, first-degree sodomy and first-degree sexual penetration, and it targets only those predatory offenders that meet four specific criteria. A jury or judge would have to find that a defendant:
- Was at least 18 years old at the time of the crime;
- Scored “high risk” on a sex offender risk assessment;
- Exhibits a tendency to injure others or target children under 12;
- Presents a serious danger to the public.
The district attorney bringing the charges also would have to find that a defendant meets these criteria before recommendnig this sentence to a jury or judge.
The element of risk plays heavily into the bill.
It is designed to send predatory sex offenders to prison for life before they can hurt more children, Courtney said. Oregon law currently carries harsher punishments for people who have committed multiple crimes.
This bill would allow a life sentence for a first-time offender who appears highly likely to abuse children again.
Craig Prins, executive director of the state’s Criminal Justice Commission, said the sex offender risk assessment that would be used to determine that level of risk is called the “STATIC-99R”, which was created in Canada.
It was designed using a statistical analysis of sex offenders. Researchers mathematically evaluated various criteria to determine how strongly they impact a sex offender’s likelihood of committing another sex crime.
For example, sex offenders who had at least one male victim were statistically more likely to sexually abuse another child, so a male victim will yield a higher score than solely female victims.
“It’s not theory, it’s just math,” he said.
- It's Voodoo and/or Minority Report.
Many sex offenders have a low probability of committing their crimes again, Prins said. “Sex offender” includes everything from a 19-year-old who had sex with a 15-year-old to the most heinous crimes. It’s a broad category, he said, and not every offender is the same.
The risk assessment used in Courtney’s bill uses statistics to weed out the “predatory” offenders — the ones most likely to commit the worst crimes again.
- Well that is the intention, but if history is a lesson, they will just start locking up many who are not a threat, to life in prison, but only time will tell.
“This is a very specific kind of offender, and they’re trying to have a very informed approach to that sentencing,” Prins said.
Courtney said he has yet to find another state with a law that deals so harshly with these crimes, and Prins didn’t know of one either. Oregon does allow a life sentence for some repeat sex offenders, but it isn’t mandatory, and it doesn’t apply to first-time offenders.
Courtney said he doesn’t know if the bill will get a hearing, let alone pass. However, he said it’s an important conversation to have and he believes in his idea.
“I’m not saying other crimes aren’t horrible,” he said. But “it’s very important that we don’t take the chance that they do it again.”