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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Law needs fixing

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Law needs fixing

When a Baker County grand jury indicted Brian Cole of Baker City earlier this year on charges of misdemeanor sex abuse, we expected that a jury would decide whether or not he is guilty of the crimes, which involved a 17-year-old girl.

We certainly believed that’s how our justice system is supposed to work.

Except sometimes it doesn’t.

On Tuesday Judge Garry Reynolds approved a civil compromise, signed by Cole and the girl, that dismisses the four counts of third-degree sex abuse against Cole.

The matter isn’t settled, though. Cole is scheduled to go to trial Monday on two counts of providing liquor to a person under 21.

The basic premise behind Oregon’s civil compromise statute is reasonable.

If a person steals someone’s wallet but then returns the wallet, with all the money inside, then a judge might be justified in avoiding the expense of a trial by approving a civil compromise.

In that hypothetical case, the victim has been made whole, at least financially.

But Judge Reynolds’ ruling highlights a problem with Oregon law that the Legislature should fix as soon as possible.

The problem involves what kinds of criminal charges can be dismissed, as Cole’s were, by means of a civil compromise.

Oregon law doesn’t allow civil compromises for felony charges. Nor are such deals allowed for misdemeanors that involve domestic violence.

Both exemptions are understandable.

We don’t think the public would accept a law that allows defendants charged with such serious crimes to avoid a trial simply by convincing the alleged victim to accept money as restitution, and then persuading a judge the deal is fair.

Yet state law does allow judges to approve civil compromises for defendants charged with misdemeanor sex abuse.

This is wrong.

Having sex with a minor doesn’t always qualify as a felony, but it’s a major crime nonetheless.

And the very notion that a person accused of such a crime can buy what amounts to an acquittal is offensive.

Unlike the person whose wallet is snatched, it’s impossible to put a dollar value on what a victim of sex abuse has lost.

Yet the law allows defendants to make precisely that calculation.

We understand the lure of a civil compromise.

After all, the alleged victim must sign a document stating that he or she has, as the attorneys say, “received satisfaction for the injuries incurred.”

(The Cole civil compromise does not mention what, if anything, the girl he was accused of abusing received as “satisfaction.”)

But here’s the thing: In criminal cases the victim is not the plaintiff. The state of Oregon is, which means all nearly 4 million of us.

And nobody asked us whether we’re satisfied with settling a sex abuse case by means other than a jury verdict or a plea bargain approved by a prosecutor.

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