Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) on Tuesday commuted the sentences of the 17 people on the state’s death row to life imprisonment without parole, the latest step in a yearslong effort to use her clemency power to correct extreme sentencing practices and provide second chances.
“I have long believed that justice is not advanced by taking a life, and the state should not be in the business of executing people—even if a terrible crime placed them in prison,” Brown said in a statement.
“Unlike previous commutations I’ve granted to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation, this commutation is not based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row,” she continued.
“Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral. It is an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably.”
Prior to Brown’s announcement, Oregon had already been shifting away from the use of the death penalty. A moratorium on executions has existed since 2011, before Brown took office. In 2019, the state legislature passed a law that significantly limited the circumstances under which the death penalty can be imposed. The following year, the Oregon Department of Corrections announced it would close the state’s physical death row and house those sentenced to death with the rest of the prison population.
Brown’s move does not eliminate the death penalty, but it does mean that those who had received a death sentence cannot be executed if a future governor decides to reinstate the punishment. Brown’s office said it believes she is the seventh American governor in the past 50 years to commute all death sentences within a state.
President Joe Biden campaigned on eliminating the federal death penalty but has so far failed to commute the sentences of those on federal death row.
Brown, who leaves office next month, has embraced clemency “as a tool for criminal justice reform and as an act of grace, exercising the belief that compassionate mercy and ensuring public safety are not mutually exclusive,” the Guardian wrote in September.
She has approved the early release of 963 people to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, removed a year from the sentences of 41 incarcerated firefighters, and created pathways to release for 73 people who committed crimes before they were 18 years old. She also pardoned around 45,000 people with marijuana convictions.
Over the years, Brown has granted more commutations and pardons than all Oregon governors of the past 50 years combined, but her efforts are not unprecedented. Rather, they are a return to the historical use of clemency to address injustices, a practice that slowed with the rise of tough-on-crime policies in the 1980s and 1990s.