During her final days in office, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) on Tuesday commuted the death sentences of all 17 people in the state who are currently on death row. Since Brown took office in 2015, she’s commuted more sentences and offered more pardons than all Oregon governors of the past five decades combined.
“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,” the governor said in a statement. Brown specified that her decision to commute the death sentences of these individuals wasn’t “based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row” or any “extraordinary growth and rehabilitation” from them.
“Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral,” Brown said. “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.”
Brown’s statement echoes criminal justice activists’ emphasis on how mercy for incarcerated people and those on death row, in particular, shouldn’t hinge on exceptional circumstances, but simply on the concept of human rights. However, the 17 individuals whose death sentences have been commuted remain sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. And despite being on death row, these 17 incarcerated people have been housed with the general prison population, as the Oregon Department of Corrections closed its physical death row in 2020.
Brown’s two terms as governor ushered in a number of steps toward progress in the state’s criminal legal system. In 2020, she approved early release for almost 1,000 incarcerated people to limit the spread of covid in Oregon prisons. Brown has also pardoned about 45,000 people with marijuana convictions. In 2019, following a moratorium that was placed on the death penalty in the state in 2011, she signed legislation to significantly limit the circumstances in which the death penalty can be used.
Brown’s Tuesday announcement to commute all of the state’s death row sentences doesn’t eliminate the death penalty—nor did the bill she signed into law in 2019. Still, the governor’s office said on Tuesday that Brown is only the seventh American governor in the last 50 years to commute all existing death sentences in a state. In 2020, on the same day that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed a bill to abolish the death penalty in the state, he also commuted the death sentences of all three individuals on death row in the state. And in 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) also commuted all death row cases in the state shortly before leaving office.
The move from Brown comes amid constant media fearmongering about the “crime rate.” As a result, lawmakers across party lines have moved to embrace tough-on-crime language and distance themselves from more lenient stances on crime.
Brown’s announcement on Tuesday has been met with predictable backlash from Republicans in the state’s legislature. In a statement, state Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, the Republican minority leader, claimed Brown’s decision to stop 17 people from being killed by the state proves “Democrats have consistently chosen criminals over victims.” If you ask me, the only thing Brown’s announcement proves is that other governors have no excuse to not take similar action.
Next month, Brown will be replaced by Oregon Gov. Elect Tina Kotek (D), who served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives until earlier this year, and will become the state’s first openly lesbian governor. While in the legislature, Kotek voted in favor of the 2019 bill that limits when the death penalty can apply.
Oregon’s death penalty has been abolished and reinstated three times since the 19th century. It was last reinstated in 1984, and two executions have taken place since, both in the 1990s.