SALEM — Courts would be required to consider veterans' military backgrounds during criminal sentencing hearings under a bill passed unanimously Monday by the Oregon Senate.
The measure, which now moves to the House, gives judges the authority to impose more lenient sentences on veterans, especially those suffering from combat-related mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
"This would establish being a service member as a mitigating factor," said Jesse Barton, an attorney in Salem and a member of the Oregon State Bar's military and veterans section that spearheaded the legislation.
"It's about putting them in a place where they can be treated as citizens who served their country, rather than just as average criminals," he added.
Barton said Senate Bill 124 would help judges determine the appropriate sentence for a person who may be having a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. He said the bill would not put a service member above the law.
"This isn't special treatment," he said. "Unless you call special treatment a guy who's done five tours in Iraq and is suffering from PTSD."
The bill is a follow-up to a 2010 law allowing district attorneys to tell the court about a defendant's military status.
Barton said it is unclear under current law if judges are allowed to consider a person's military background when determining a sentence. This bill would require that judges be made aware of a defendant's service in the armed forces, and allow them to be more lenient.
Defense attorneys still would be responsible for explaining the link between a veteran's combat experiences and the criminal behavior he or she is on trial for, Barton said.
Violent crimes would be excluded from special consideration, and courts could not impose sentences that are less than the mandated minimum sentence. Also, veterans who have been dishonorably discharged would not be able to benefit from the measure.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, said the intention is to identify service men and women who need help recovering from the trauma of war and combat.
"It's one of the many efforts we are trying to make to start the transition for some of these individuals back into society," he said.
Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell, deputy director of the Oregon Military Department, said the bill would highlight a person's military status as a possible factor behind his or her criminal behavior.
"We want to get them healthy again rather than locking them up and throwing away the key," he said.