A mother battles Measure 11

By Cathi Lawler

(Editor's note: Oregon Ballot Measure 11, passed by voters in 1994, imposed lengthy mandatory sentences for any adult who commits any one of 21 speciific crimes. Breaking sharply with oregon's legal traditions, Measure 11 also requires that teenagers - 15, 16 and 17 years-old be automatically tried as adults if charged with any of these crimes. Under Measure 11 these youth will never be reevaluated, their social background and future potential never considered. The Lawler family stood up to Measure 11 after their son's arrest, and the following story illustrates the power found by Cathi Lawler in her resistance to injustice.)

With my eyes closed, wanting to disappear from this place where I stand, desperately dreading what I am about to participate in, I can hear my fear before I have to face it.

How can I watch my world be torn apart at every level of emotion. I want to hide. I want to scream. I cannot stop what is about to happen. I open my eyes and see my beautiful baby, my favorite football player, and my talented, intelligent, handsome, 17-year-old son, walking before me handcuffed and shackled.

I want to wedge myself between those chains and his skin.

"Where's God's grace Mom?" he quietly questions as the guards escort him into the courtroom. I can feel my own tears leave my eyes as I watch my son struggle with his chains to wipe his own eyes. I cannot kiss it and make it better, I cannot ignore it until it goes away, I am forced to acknowledge my greatest fear. I have no control for the next 8-1/2 years of my son's life; he will be locked away in prison doing every day of his mandatory minimum sentence under Oregon's Measure 11.

My son is no longer mine to share daily life with; for the next 104 months - 3,102 days - he belongs to the Department of Corrections.

Most are first-time offenders

That was three years ago, and our family knew if we wanted Brian to return to us after 8-1/2 years a better person, not hardened and bitter, we had to help narrow the widening gap between punishment and successful correction.

Brian's grandfather quickly recognized that others needed to know about this law. Also, other families affected would need emotional support as they traveled through the roller coaster of the legal system as we had. Parents Against Cruel & Unusual Punishment (PAC-UP) began. As the group grew from three to 600, so did our concern with regard to the trendy political position of "punishment" instead of prevention and rehabilitation.

We decided to help lower the future crime rate and also free up money from the state's budget which could be more wisely invested in school education and prevention/treatment programs instead of building more prisons. We had to repeal Measure 11. When we found out 67% of arrests were first-time offenders, we were motivated even more.

We worked through the 1997 legislature to change Measure 11, but all that came out was SB 1049, which gave relief for only three crimes committed under specific circumstances. The most difficult provision for people who might qualify for resentencing to overcome was that the prosecuting attorney had to agree to it. In November 1997 we formed a political action committee, Citizens For Measure 11 Reform, and asked state representative JoAnn Bowman to help us. After months of working on the wording, we filed an initiative.

The Attorney General is required to give an initiative a ballot tile before it can be circulated, but objections to our proposed title were filed by Steve Doell of Victims United. Ultimately, the title ended up before the Supreme Court before it was finally decided. By then the deadline for collecting signatures was 60 days away. We came close but did not have enough time.

Since initiatives can only be placed on a general election ballot every two years, we refiled our repeal for the year 2000. We needed to collect the required 67,000 valid signatures by May 15, 2000.

On April 27, 2000, Citizens to Reform Measure 11/2000 turned in 99,692 signatures to Oregon officials, 50% more signatures than needed to place the repeal initiative on the November 2000 ballot.

Action Opportunities

We have come a long way since October 1995. Our membership has surpassed 3,000 with groups in Portland, Salem, Eugene, Medford and Grants Pass. We hold rallies, marches and community forums. We speak at local meetings, schools, churches and distribute information to educate the public about mandatory minimum sentencing. We also publish a newsletter to keep members updated.

Funds are always needed. Donations of time, money and labor are welcome. Please contact us if you can help work on a door-to-door campaign in the coming months. Please call 503-491-0611 or email: clawler@easystreet.com

Cathi Lawler is Director of PAC-UP and a Chief Petitioner for the initiative to repeal Measure 11, sponsored by Citizens for Measure 11 Reform.