Oregon’s Justice System

A brief look at Oregon’s justice system, with a particular eye on Measure 11 and the public defender system.

graphic: scales of justice

From December 15-23, 2022, the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center conducted a statewide survey of Oregonians’ values and beliefs about Oregon’s justice system. A description of the methodology used for the research is provided below.

The question numbers in this document correspond with the accompanying annotated questionnaire (Q35-40). Due to rounding, the percentages reported below may not add to 100% or compare exactly to the percentages for the same question in the annotated questionnaire or tabs.

Included below for selected questions are noteworthy subgroups variations for BIPOC/white, age, urban/rural, education, gender, and households with and without children. The accompanying set of tabs notes subgroup variations for all the questions.

OVBC surveys currently use aggregated data to analyze the opinions of BIPOC residents in comparison to the opinions of residents who identify as white and not another race. BIPOC residents are not a monolith; the grouping represents a wide diversity of races and ethnicities. The findings included in this memo should not be construed such that all people of color are believed to share the same opinions. Disaggregated race data will be provided when sample sizes permit reliability.

For survey full question wording, all statistically significant subgroup findings, and respondent quotes, readers are encouraged to refer to the accompanying three documents, found at the bottom of this page: (1) annotated questionnaire, (2) crosstabulations document, and (3) verbatim written responses spreadsheet (available upon request).

Oregon Values and Beliefs Center (OVBC): This research was completed as a community service by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center. OVBC is an independent and non-partisan organization and an Oregon charitable nonprofit corporation. Representative OVBC projects include opinion research about race-based crimes for the Asian Health and Service Center, as well as research about early childhood education and the cost of childcare for the Children’s Institute.

Justice Reform: Key Takeaways

  • While a plurality of Oregonians (49%) says the mandatory minimum sentencing rules established by Measure 11 are fair (Q35), eight in ten believe that Oregon youth in the justice system should have the opportunity to earn sentence reductions for signs of rehabilitation (Q36).
  • BIPOC and white Oregonians are largely in agreement on the fairness of the Measure 11 rules and the importance of providing opportunities for earning sentence reductions. Given well-documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this consistent agreement is notable.
  • In discussing the need to provide Oregon youth in the justice system with opportunities to reduce their sentences, many survey respondents cited the brain development and maturation occurring among young offenders, and the need to treat such cases differently than adults.
  • The belief that all who are accused of a crime should have access to an attorney is nearly universal across all demographic groups among Oregonians (Q38).
  • Open-ended responses show concern that the justice system is overburdened and unable to deliver just outcomes for Oregonians.

Measure 11 and Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Rules

Roughly one-half of survey respondents say the mandatory minimum sentencing rules for young offenders established by Measure 11 in 1994 are fair (48%), either leaning towards that belief or definitely in agreement (Q35).

  • Four in ten (39%) respondents say the rules are unfair (lean toward/definitely).
  • An additional 9% don’t know enough about the issue to have an opinion and 4% feel they know about it but are undecided. 
  • BIPOC and white Oregonians are largely in agreement on the fairness of the Measure 11 rules, showing little difference with the overall population.
  • Men, rural Oregonians, and those with school-aged children are some of the most likely to think the mandatory minimum sentencing rules are fair when it comes to young offenders.
  • Those ages 75+ and college graduates are two groups that view these rules as most unfair.

Young Offenders and Opportunities for Sentence Reductions

A strong majority of survey respondents (eight in ten) say Oregon youth in the legal justice system should have the opportunity to earn sentence reductions for signs of rehabilitation, like program completions and patterns of good behavior (Q36).

  • Only one in ten say they should not have the opportunity to earn sentence reductions for signs of rehabilitation.
  • More than seven in ten of all demographic groups (including gender, age, region, ethnicity, and political party) agree that such groups should have the opportunity to earn sentence reductions.
  • Support for this opportunity increases with higher education and income levels, and largely with age, to a high of 89% of those ages 75+.
  • BIPOC and white Oregonians are largely in alignment on this issue, showing only a small five-point difference of opinion.

Oregonians in their own words: Youth in the Justice System

Oregonians have varied thoughts on youth in the justice system in Oregon. The following are some of the more common themes that surfaced, with a reoccurring emphasis on youth brain development, and the need to account for maturation in sentencing decisions (Q37):

“I don’t think that kids should be jailed with adults. There’s a huge difference in brain development, or lack of, in youth.”

Woman, age 55-64, Josephine County, White

“Sentencing kids to incarceration ensures they’re going to become institutionalized and become repeat offenders as adults without a strong support system and some type of vocational rehabilitation.”

Man, age 45-54, Multnomah County, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander

“A crime feels the same to a victim regardless of the age of the person who committed it. You do the crime, you do the time.”

Woman, age 55-64, Douglas County, Native American, American Indian, or Alaska Native

“A 19-year-old’s brain isn’t even fully developed. They should be held accountable for their actions but shouldn’t spend the rest of their life paying for a mistake if rehabilitation is possible. If it is a heinous crime, they should be held in a mental health facility and given treatment. Being put in prison at 19 years old will likely have an adverse effect.”

Woman, age 30-44, Coos County, White


Legal Representation

More than nine in ten survey respondents say it is important that everyone accused of a crime has access to an attorney (Q38).

  • This belief is universally high across all major demographic groups, with minimal “don’t know” responses, indicating strongly held convictions on the right to representation.

Opposition to Dropping Criminal Changes

Roughly six in ten (57%) survey respondents oppose the idea of dropping charges against someone should attorney shortages prevent them from accessing legal counsel (Q39).

  • Opposition increased sharply with age, from roughly one-half of those under the age of 44 opposing the idea of dropping charges in this situation, to 72% of those 75+. Those 65 and older are more opposed to this than most other demographic distinctions.
  • A majority of BIPOC and white Oregonians oppose this idea, as well as residents of Multnomah County and other parts of the state.

Increasing the Number of Available Public Defenders

Seven in ten Oregonians would support paying public defense lawyers the same amount as prosecutors to increase the number of public defenders available to cover cases (Q40).

  • More than six in ten of all major demographic groups support this proposal.
  • Support for this proposal increased dramatically with age, from 62% among those ages 18-29 to 85% among those ages 75+.
  • Support also increases with higher education and income levels.

Oregonians in their own words: Oregon’s Justice System

Again, Oregonians have varied opinions on the justice system in Oregon, with reoccurring themes including a perception that the system is overburdened and underfunded across the board, reducing its efficacy and ability to provide just outcomes for Oregonians, as well as concerns about the politicization of the justice system. Below are several representative quotes (Q41).

“Part of the problem is an increasing number of people who are entering the system because of a lack of other services, like mental health and substance abuse treatment. Also, the caseloads are so high and the pay so low that more and more public defenders are quitting altogether.”

Man, age 55-64, Washington County, Native American, American Indian, or Alaska Native

“The court system is broken. People are emboldened to commit crimes if there’s no fear of consequences. The laws are not enforced uniformly and without fairness, there can be no justice.”

Man, age 45-54, Multnomah County, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander

“I have heard many stories about persons getting public defenders that are so overworked they just advise plea deals even though their clients are innocent.”

Woman, age 18-29, Columbia County, White

“Oregon has growing pains and our government infrastructure has not kept up. This is just another area in which the quality of civilization relies directly on how we raise and spend money on that infrastructure. Oregon needs an overhaul.”

Woman, age 55-64, Multnomah County, White 

Methodology: The online survey consisted of 1,968 Oregon residents ages 18+ and took approximately 15 minutes to complete. Respondents were contacted by using professionally maintained online panels. In gathering responses, a variety of quality control measures were employed, including questionnaire pre-testing, validation, and real-time monitoring of responses. To ensure a representative sample, demographic quotas were set, and data weighted by area of the state, gender, age, and education.

Statement of Limitations: Based on a 95% confidence interval, this survey’s margin of error for the full sample ±2.21%. Due to rounding or multiple-answer questions, response percentages may not add up to 100%.

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