Oregon Standoff Boosts Momentum for Criminal-Justice Reform

Conservative Republicans say prison terms for ranchers highlight need to end harsh mandatory minimums

A sign shows support for the Oregon ranchers on Tuesday in Burns, Oregon. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The bipartisan push to ease harsh, unbending sentencing laws is suddenly drawing energy from an unlikely source: The saga of Oregon ranchers whose prison sentences helped spark the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in that state.

Greg Walden, the GOP lawmaker who represents the rural Oregon district at the center of the action, said the five-year prison terms handed down to a father-son duo of ranchers who set fire to public lands will boost efforts to reform criminal-justice policy.

“I think it will bring on new supporters,” he told National Journal in an interview Wednesday. “The Hammond case illustrates the unfairness of some of these mandatory minimum sentences, and the problems that occur when you remove judicial discretion from the system of justice.”

It’s an unusual turn of events.

The push to ease mandatory minimums—which is part of a broader effort to overhaul sentencing and prison policy—has focused most often on tough sentences required for drug offenses.

But the case of Dwight and Steven Hammond is about their recently imposed five-year sentences for setting fires in 2001 and 2006 that burned about 140 acres of public lands managed by the Interior Department. Their prosecution helped spur the broader antigovernment occupation at a wildlife refuge that’s continuing in Oregon (and which the Hammonds do not support).

A district court judge, in 2012, rejected the five-year minimum sentences required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which deals with crimes including arson against federal property. The judge, Michael Hogan, said the particulars of the case would have made the five-year terms “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses.”

But federal prosecutors appealed, and an appellate court ordered the resentencing of the duo in 2014. They were given the tougher, mandatory-minimum penalties in the fall and reported to prison Monday.

A number of GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates have criticized the armed takeover of the Mal­heur Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge.

But Walden said their case and the occupation is nonetheless putting a focus on mandatory minimums—and attracting wider GOP attention. “This incident, as unfortunate as it is, and in the case of the takeover, as inappropriate as it is, may highlight several issues, including that one,” said Walden, who is also chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s political arm.

“I think there are ... rural conservative Republican members who are looking at this and going ‘wow,’” he said.

Some other GOP lawmakers are making the same connection.

Rep. Raul Labrador, a member of the deeply conservative House Freedom Caucus, told reporters Wednesday that the Hammond case is a major reason why he backs sentencing reform.

“This is the perfect ... case where [the] judge would have been able to make a decision that was just and fair, as opposed to having the sentencing guidelines say that you must go to prison for five years for a particular crime,” he said.

The resonance of the Oregon case isn’t lost on advocates trying to scale-back tough mandatory-minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses that date back to the 1980s.

Earlier this week, the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums highlighted the Hammonds case.

“Federal mandatory minimums once again have destroyed a local community’s ability to hold its citizens accountable. A one-size-fits-all federal prison sentence, passed by a Congress that arrogantly believes it can foresee all the circumstances in which its punishments might apply, was used to send the Hammonds to prison for a minimum term of five years each,” said Kevin Ring, the group’s director of strategic initiatives, in a statement Monday.

But it’s not clear how the mandatory minimums at issue in the Hammonds case may intersect with the broader push for criminal-justice reform on Capitol Hill and at the White House. The main bills that are moving in the House and Senate include provisions that deal with mandatory sentences for drug crimes, Ring notes, and not the 1996 statute under which the ranchers were sentenced.

“Whether we have time to broaden the bills’ scope to address all these other crimes that carry mandatory minimums, that is not clear,” Ring told National Journal.

Alex Brown contributed to this article