Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) commuted the sentences of dozens of people convicted of crimes they committed as kids on Wednesday, potentially reducing their prison time by hundreds of years and marking major progress in a broader reform effort that recognizes people who committed crimes before they were adults have a unique capacity for change.
Brown’s clemency order lists more than 70 people who committed crimes before they were 18 years old and are serving sentences of 15 years or more in prison. They were selected because they were excluded from a 2019 juvenile justice reform bill that dramatically changed the way the state punishes people who commit crimes when they are kids. Those individuals, many of whom were previously facing life sentences — some without the chance of parole — now have the opportunity to petition the state’s Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision for release after 15 years in prison. Brown instructed the board to consider each individual’s age and immaturity at the time of the crime and whether they have subsequently shown maturity and rehabilitation.
The clemency order excludes individuals who are serving sentences for crimes they later committed as adults and those who have a release date of 2050 or later — although these individuals can still petition the governor for clemency.
The governor’s move comes months after a HuffPost story about Kipland Kinkel, one of Oregon’s most infamous juvenile offenders, and the ways his high-profile case has been used to justify extreme sentencing for other people who committed crimes when they were kids. In 1998, when Kinkel was 15 years old and experiencing symptoms of a severe undiagnosed mental illness, he killed his mother, his father, two students at his school, and wounded 25 others. He was sentenced to nearly 112 years in prison without the chance of parole.
With a projected release date of 2110, Kinkel is not part of Brown’s clemency order. The 2050 cutoff in Brown’s order appears to be designed specifically to exclude him, although it does impact a handful of other people.
“We support what Governor Brown is doing,” Gabe Newland, the director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Youth Justice Project said in a statement. “And there is still more work to be done. The guiding principles of S.B. 1008 — that young people are more prone to impulsive, high-risk behavior, and that young people have enormous capacity for change — should apply to everyone.”
In a series of interviews with HuffPost over the course of 10 months, Kinkel described the childhood onset of delusions and hallucinations that would later be identified as symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He explained how, with his mental illness left untreated, he became increasingly convinced he was under threat and needed to amass weapons to protect himself. He described his memory of the psychotic break he experienced while committing his crimes and the overwhelming remorse he has felt ever since. He spoke about getting treatment for his mental illness and the support he received from his community of juvenile lifers as he grew up in prison. The story received considerable media attention in Oregon.
Kinkel is one of many juveniles who received a de facto life sentence under Measure 11, a 1994 voter initiative that created mandatory minimums for certain offenses and required kids ages 15 to 17 who were charged with these crimes to be sentenced as adults. Although Kinkel is white, youth of color were disproportionately convicted of Measure 11 offenses.
In 2018, Kinkel and other individuals facing extreme sentences for crimes they committed as kids discreetly met with lawmakers to speak about their growth and advocate for sentencing reform. The following year, Oregon’s state legislature passed Senate Bill 1008, a juvenile justice bill aimed at reforming Measure 11. The reform bill eliminated life without parole sentences for minors, made it harder to prosecute kids as adults, and created early-release opportunities for individuals who showed rehabilitation. But faced with a fear-mongering campaign to exclude Kinkel from any reform effort, lawmakers made the bill only apply to those who were sentenced after its passage.
Brown’s clemency action is an effort to correct some of the sentencing inequities created by the state legislature with the non-retroactive reform bill.
“Youth should be held accountable for their actions, but the fact is that adolescent brains are still growing and developing, especially in skills such as reasoning, planning, and self-regulation,” Elizabeth Merah, the governor’s press secretary, wrote in an email. “Yet, too often our criminal justice responses do not take this into account. In particular, Measure 11 removed many routes for young people to demonstrate their capacity for change and positive growth.”
Juvenile justice reform advocates praised Brown’s decision to give a second chance to people who have grown up and dramatically changed since the time of their crimes.
“Like many of the people who will benefit from these commutations, I grew up in prison and went through a profound process of personal growth and rehabilitation while incarcerated,” Trevor Walraven, the outreach coordinator for the Youth Justice Project, said in a statement. “I know how hard many of these impacted individuals have worked to make the changes they need to become healthy and ready to contribute to the community outside the prison walls in positive ways. I’m confident they will prove that they deserve the trust the governor has shown in them by giving them this tremendous opportunity.”
Brown’s decision to grant clemency to some of the people left behind by S.B. 1008 is “an extension of what she has already been doing” with her clemency powers, said Aliza Kaplan, who runs a criminal justice reform clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School. Kaplan urged all governors to use their clemency power more broadly to “make adjustments and heal what we created in the ’80s and ’90s with mandatory minimums — where we as a society and our legislature had a mentality that we should lock people up and no one was an individual and throw away the key.”
Brown outlined her clemency plan in a September letter to Oregon’s Department of Corrections in which she requested a list of names of people in its custody for crimes they committed as juveniles who were sentenced before S.B. 1008 went into effect and who met a set of criteria.
“SB 1008 takes into account the fact that these youth are capable of tremendous transformation,” Brown wrote in the letter, citing the fact that many who commit crimes during their youth complete college degrees and treatment programs while in youth custody before they even age into adult prison. “For these reasons, I have no doubt that the above-referenced list will be comprised of many individuals who have demonstrated exemplary progress and considerable evidence of rehabilitation, and who — unfairly — did not benefit from the effects of SB 1008.”
Brown’s juvenile clemency plan is two-pronged, according to the September letter. One part involves providing clemency that enables individuals who are serving a sentence of 15 years or more to get a parole board hearing — which she did on Wednesday. The second part involves reviewing the sentences of people who were under 18 at the time of their crime and who will have served 50% of their sentences by next December.
For the roughly 200 people in that group, the governor’s office “will engage in an individualized review process to determine whether the youth has made exemplary progress and if there is considerable evidence of rehabilitation, as well as taking into account input from the [district attorney] and victims, if any,” Merah wrote in an email. “If the Governor determines that a commutation is warranted, the youth will be granted a conditional release.”
Both parts of Brown’s clemency plan exclude individuals who are currently in prison for a conviction they subsequently committed as adults.
Kinkel’s interviews with HuffPost marked the first time he had spoken publicly since his arrest. For decades, he declined all interview requests, worried that emerging publicly would further traumatize his victims. But after seeing how his notoriety was used to justify excluding hundreds of others from benefiting from the juvenile justice reform bill, he began to feel that staying silent was hurting people too.
“I have responsibility for the harm that I caused when I was 15. But I also have responsibility for the harm that I am causing now as I’m 38 because of what I did at 15,” Kinkel previously told HuffPost.
“In Oregon, Kip is the boogeyman that people bring up any time there’s some type of movement on a juvenile bill that might let people who have long sentences get out earlier,” Seth Koch, who is incarcerated in the same prison as Kinkel, told HuffPost earlier this year. “To most people, he’s the school shooter from Thurston. They don’t know Kip Kinkel, they just know a name.”
“It’s just frustrating because it’s hard to see someone I care about that much used in that way,” Koch said.
Kinkel had hoped that sharing the circumstances under which he committed his crimes — and the ways that he had grown since — would prevent his case from being used as a reason to deny a second chance to others.
His efforts may have worked. Under Brown’s order, Koch, who was originally sentenced to life without parole, will soon get the chance to go before the parole board.