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Leniency vs. mercy in Oregon’s juvenile justice system

The state tests its new law on how to try minors’ cases


A 10-year-old boy in an Ohio courtroom Associated Press/Photo by Tony Dejak (file)

Leniency vs. mercy in Oregon’s juvenile justice system

In late January, authorities in Marion County, Ore., arrested 16-year-old Gerardo Trujillo-Torres on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, intentional first-degree assault, and unlawful use of a weapon in the death of 24-year-old Joshua Steward. Police responded to a car crash involving a mortally injured Steward and a young woman, who was hospitalized, and said an earlier shooting caused the accident, The Oregonian reported. Trujillo-Torres had a criminal history and was on parole after police arrested him earlier for assault and other crimes.

Now he will be one of the first suspects to face trial under the state’s new juvenile justice law that took effect last year. Previously, authorities automatically tried minors accused of serious crimes in adult court. But in 2019, Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill that required prosecutors to request a hearing and convince a judge before moving a case out of juvenile court. Opponents say the new law is too lenient, while supporters argue teens should get the chance to change.

Oregon’s law applies to young people who commit crimes serious enough to fall under the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. It eliminates life sentences without parole for minors, starts all youth cases in juvenile court, and institutes a “second look” halfway through any sentence longer than two years. The new law is not retroactive, so Trujillo-Torres’ case will be one of the first to test it.

The new standards also affect the case of teenager Kyle Snook, whom police arrested in January on charges he drove his car through a crowd of young people gathered at a campsite in northwestern Oregon, killing one person. District Attorney Rod Brown is recommending Snook face trial in adult court, but said the new law is a significant hurdle: “It is very frustrating to see that offenders may or may not face penalties associated with the crime, especially when it involves death and serious injury.”

Those who support trying juveniles in adult court stress the weight of their actions. “There are no juvenile crimes,” former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said. “If you commit a murder, rape, or assault, you are an adult.”

But others argue that teens’ brains have not completely developed, affecting their capacity to weigh the consequences of their actions.

Secular and Christian juvenile justice advocates agree that community- and family-centered treatment are better for youth offenders than incarceration. Eric Kelly, national juvenile justice ministry director for Youth for Christ, said authorities must consider the young people’s situation in life as well as their actions.

“When basic long-term needs are not being met—food, shelter, safety, nurturing, etc.—young people will begin to think only short-term,” Kelly said, adding that Christians “need to advocate for a proportional response that balances society’s need for accountability with restoration, forgiveness, and most of all, genuine understanding.”


Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas.

@CharissaKoh

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