PORTLAND, Ore. — Three days after Gov. Kate Brown sent a list of criteria to the state’s Department of Corrections, making it clear she’d consider releasing inmates who qualified, fellow Democrats in Oregon’s Legislature are pushing back.
According to the DOC, the governor’s plan would tap close to 100 inmates for early release. Lawmakers want her to consider releasing close to 2,000 of Oregon’s close to 15,000 inmates.
“You all know how dangerous COVID-19 is for those in our state prisons,” said State Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland).
Dembrow was one of close to half a dozen lawmakers who, via Zoom Monday, spoke to reporters about their “Decompression Strategy.”
In an effort to bring down the population and let those left in prison keep their social distance, the strategy recommends Gov. Brown release three categories of inmates, each with its own set of criteria.
- Category A is made up of inmates who have served at least half their sentence and have a severe medical condition.
- Inmates in Category B are scheduled to be released within four months, and they have a plan for where they'll live.
- Those in Category C are scheduled to be released within six months, and while they may not have housing lined up now, once they do, their release would be approved.
All inmates identified in the proposed plan also have to have been convicted of non-Measure 11 crimes, and they can't be released until their county has reopened.
Lawmakers said each release would be decided on a case-by-case basis, and victims would be notified in advance.
“We do not expect to see a significant number walking out the door like in the next 24, 36, 72 hours,” said State Sen. Floyd Prozanski. “This will take some time.”
Both lawmakers' proposed strategy and the governor’s narrowed plan come in the wake spikes in infection rates in Oregon's prisons.
The Oregon State Penitentiary has been deemed the state's largest outbreak with 139 inmates infected along with dozens of staff. One inmate has died of the virus.
In recent weeks advocacy groups sued, demanding the state do more to protect people in prison. That includes releasing close to half its prison population and ramp up testing.
State Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Portland) touched on the latter Monday, pointing out prisons are largely filled with people of color.
“The OHA has issued guidance for people of color to have unfettered access to testing. I want to make sure that was available in the facilities as well,” she said. “It does not seem to be.”
The testing issue aside, there's pushback on letting any inmates walk free.
Paige Clarkson, the president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, released a statement about the plans, saying, “Such actions undermine truth in sentencing, discounts the safety and security of victims who trusted in a sentence handed down by the court and erodes public confidence in a justice system's accountability for felony lawbreakers.”
Gov. Brown gave the DOC until June 22 to get her the list of close to 100 inmates.
In statement, press secretary Liz Merah wrote:
The Governor appreciates the proposal put forward by members of the Judiciary Committees and their input on this topic. As you know, the Governor has directed DOC to proceed with a case-by-case review of individuals who would face significant health challenges should they contract COVID-19 in order to determine if they meet specific criteria for consideration of commutation. This direction is generally in line with “Group A” of the legislative proposal; she has asked DOC to provide her with this information by June 22.
The Department of Corrections has also implemented a number of measures intended to limit the spread of COVID19. These include routine cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces, screening of staff entering facilities, screening of adults in custody entering intake, and isolating adults in custody with symptoms.
The Governor has no additional plans for other actions at this time.