Oregon Gov. Kate Brown Appears to Bow to Criticism, Creates New Post to Inform Crime Victims of Commutations


Gov. Kate Brown on Friday said she has created a new position in her office to serve as a liaison to crime victims and their families in cases under consideration for clemency.

Brown has appointed Karuna Thompson, a longtime chaplain at the Oregon State Penitentiary, as a victim impact liaison.

In a letter to Oregon prosecutors, Brown said Thompson’s work would supplement the victim notification process done by district attorney offices. She didn’t directly address criticism from prosecutors, relatives of murder victims and even Oregon’s senior U.S. senator for not doing enough to include victims’ perspectives in her decisions.

Thompson will “perform additional victim and survivor outreach, only to the extent and in the manner these victims and survivors are willing to participate,” she said.

The move comes as Brown continues to grant clemency to people in prison as her term winds down. Clemency includes commutations, which reduce a person’s sentence, as well as pardons, which forgives a person for the crime they committed.

She is among the busiest governors in the country to exercise her broad authority, though she is the subject of a lawsuit by prosecutors and crime victims who allege that at least some of her clemency decisions were illegal.

The governor’s office on Friday said it was unable to provide the most up-to-date numbers on clemency. According to a letter Brown sent to the Legislature in March, 519 clemency applications were pending at that time, 328 of which were submitted after Jan. 10.

In April, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden slammed Brown’s decision to commute the sentence of a Douglas County man who was sentenced nearly 30 years ago to life without the possibility of parole for shooting a young woman in the back of the head, calling the move “wrong on every level.”

In that case, the woman’s mother apparently learned of Brown’s decision from a television news reporter. The Douglas County district attorney said his office had been unable to reach the victim’s family.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and the Partnership for Safety and Justice, both supporters of criminal justice reform efforts, commended Thompson’s appointment.

In a joint statement, the organizations said “all victims and survivors should be provided as much support as possible in each of their healing journeys.”

“Through our work, we know that survivors of crime have many perspectives on justice and healing, and that justice and healing is much more than a court process or prison sentence,” the groups said.

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said Kevin Gleim, a lawyer for the governor who handles the commutation process, called him about a week ago to get his feedback on creating the position.

Hummel said he enthusiastically supports it. He said his office is busy and can use the extra help tracking down victims, particularly in old cases, to ensure they are aware of a clemency appeal.

He said Lewis and Clark Law School’s Criminal Justice Reform Clinic among others has driven the rise in petitions. The clinic is led by Aliza Kaplan, a professor and among the most influential figures in reforming the state’s criminal justice system. She has urged Brown to use her clemency authority to review cases.

“DA’s offices have been buried in these clemency petitions,” Hummel said. “It’s just a deluge.

Liz Merah, a spokesperson for Brown, said Thompson stands ready to help DAs with victim notification in any case and will follow up in cases when they are unable to locate victims.

Thompson will provide information about the clemency process and ensure victims are able to provide their perspective, Merah said.

“We also want to ensure that victims feel safe and that they have access to support services,” she said.

Thompson has an extensive background in restorative justice, she said. The movement focuses on holding people accountable through community dialogue, education and directly addressing the harm done to victims and communities.

Thompson will take on the assignment while on leave from the state penitentiary. She will continue to be paid by the Oregon Department of Corrections. According to 2021 data, her salary was $79,755.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said he welcomed the attention on crime victims and their perspectives in the clemency process.

“Victims’ voices and victims’ rights have clearly not been prioritized in the last couple years with this wave of unprecedented clemencies,” he said.

Rosemary Brewer, executive director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center, has criticized what she sees as a disregard for victims’ families in the clemency process.

“Victims have felt left out of the process,” she said. “They have asked to speak to the governor and the governor’s counsel and been denied in the past.”

She said creating a new position focused on victims is a positive step, though she said she had concerns about whether Thompson’s background in restorative justice made her a good fit.

She said people who work in the area of restorative justice tend to be “more focused on the offender and less on the victims.”

“I have concerns about how this is going to play out, but I am happy to hear the governor is trying to reach out to victims,” she said.