Drug Possession Penalties May Be In For A Shake-Up In Oregon

By Victoria Kim 07/18/17

An Oregon bill headed for the governor's desk aims to address unjust drug war policies, addiction treatment and racial disparity.

Male judge in a courtroom with a gavel

A bill that would reduce penalties for possession of heroin, cocaine, meth, and other illicit substances in Oregon was approved by the state legislature and now awaits the signature of the governor.

The bill would reclassify possession of certain illicit drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor—with the goal of reducing the state prison population. 

If passed, the bill would also expand treatment options for people without prior felonies or convictions for drug possession, the Washington Post reports

“We are trying to move policy towards treatment rather than prison beds,” said state Senator Jackie Winters, co-chair of the Public Safety Committee. “We can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance use.”

Also included in the bill is a new initiative that will track the effects of law enforcement policies and procedures by collecting demographic data of Oregonians stopped by police. 

The goal is to be able to identify racist practices and address the disproportionate number of black Oregonians behind bars. According to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project, black individuals make up less than 2% of the state’s population, yet represent more than 9% of the state prison population as of 2014. 

The report also found that the incarceration rate for black individuals is 5.6 times that of whites in Oregon.

“Too often, individuals with addiction issues find their way to the doorstep of the criminal justice system when they are arrested for possession of a controlled substance,” says Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police. “Unfortunately, felony convictions in these cases also include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities.”

Some lawmakers who are critical of the bill disagree with its “soft on crime” approach. State Senator Betsy Johnson, a Democrat who voted against the bill, said the move toward decriminalization is misguided and promotes a “hug-a-thug policy.”

The bill now heads to the desk of Governor Kate Brown, who has already expressed her support for the bill.

“While we still have much work ahead, HB 2355 represents an important step towards creating a more equitable justice system to better serve all Oregonians,” said Brown. “Addressing disparities that too often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines should not be political issues.”

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