A bill that would reclassify assaults against Oregon State Hospital employees as felonies rather than misdemeanors appeared to fail in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
However, a last-minute motion from Rep. Brent Barton, D-Oregon City, brought it back for reconsideration in the committee’s next meeting today. The vote taken Tuesday could be reversed then.
READ – our open letter on OSH assaults
A deciding factor in the committee’s decision not to send the bill to the House floor seemed to be a letter submitted by Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau, whose office the Oregon Legislature gave almost $200,000 last year to prosecute crimes at the hospital and Oregon State Penitentiary.
He said it was unlikely more crimes at the hospital would be prosecuted even if House Bill 4036 were to pass, and he said he was reluctant to support changes to sentencing laws after agreeing to a deal struck last year.
“I don’t often get angry in this building, but I’m angry now,” Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, said after reading the letter. “He can prosecute (these crimes) now, but somehow he’s choosing not to do it.”
Staff testified Monday that fewer than five of these crimes are prosecuted annually, in spite of an Oregon State Police detective being dedicated to investigating these crimes.
Beglau said this bill was unlikely to change how he handles these crimes.
“I remain confident that the numbers of prosecutions will remain relatively low, for purposes of fiscal impact,” he wrote. “I believe the best way to inform the committee of the realistic dynamics of violence in the OSH would be careful consultation with the stakeholders.”
He also said he was reluctant to support the bill after the deal that was struck over corrections reform in 2013. The law enforcement community and the legislature mutually agreed not to push for less or more sentencing reform than was contained in HB 3194, and he said he would feel uncomfortable supporting a bill that is essentially further reform to sentencing law.
This bill was aimed at prosecuting a small group of perpetually violent patients in the hospital, who staff said intentionally hurt employees and other patients. Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said Monday making these crimes felonies rather than misdemeanors would be a deterrent to patients and an incentive to prosecute the crimes. He said it’s an ongoing problem that has been addressed in several ways but has never been fixed.
The committee members did not appear to disagree. Rather, they seemed to think Beglau’s approach would render the law useless.
After bill was spiked, Barton, in spite of his vote against sending the bill, called for a reconsideration today, which was approved. The bill will be up for further discussion and likely another vote during the committee’s regular meeting on that day.