Oregon crime bill faces uncertain fate amid Republican walkout

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — With the clock ticking on a 2023 legislative session all but stalled by a Republican-led walkout in the Senate, hundreds of bills could be lost if the impasse is not resolved soon. Some of those bills have both widespread political support and passionate champions in the general public.

At the beginning of May, KGW’s The Story reported on a mom from Clackamas County, Kellee Harris, who testified in support of House Bill 2676.

The bill includes a package of reforms to crime victim compensation, the resources that Oregonians are entitled to after becoming the victim of a crime. That includes things like counseling and help with medical bills.

If passed, HB 2676 would expand the types of resources covered by the state — among them, “strangulation kits.” Like a rape kit, strangulation kits are an investigative tool used in hospitals for victims of assault, often in domestic violence situations. They help nurses collect forensic evidence that can be used in court to prosecute the suspect.

Right now strangulation kits are not used universally, and the bill would help get kits out to more counties; provided to more victims of this kind of assault.

That’s how Harris became involved in promoting HB 2676. It was after the death of her daughter, Kelsey, in March 2021.

RELATED: ‘It can happen to you’: After daughter’s death, Oregon woman champions strangulation kit legislation

Kelsey, a 31-year-old teacher and coach at Lebanon High School, visited the hospital after being strangled. Kellee Harris believes that her daughter’s boyfriend was the perpetrator, but county prosecutors decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed and dropped the charges.

Just over a week after the assault, Kelsey took her own life.

Over time, Kellee Harris translated her grief into action, deciding she wanted to do something for people in her daughter’s position. After seeing The Story’s “step-by-step” account of how to get involved in Salem, Harris contacted her lawmakers, who encouraged her to testify in support of HB 2676.

“The Linn County District Attorney’s office told me, when it comes to strangulations, juries like to see bruises. I will never forget those words. I was told, even if Kelsey had lived to testify against her abuser, the jury might not have believed her, since she did not have highly visible neck bruises,” Harris testified in April, holding up a photo taken of her daughter’s neck after the assault. “This is the picture they took after her strangulation. If strangulation kits had been available in Linn County at the time of my daughter’s assault, they could’ve made all the difference for Kelsey. I urge you to pass HB 2676.”

Harris said that it wasn’t easy to deliver her testimony in Salem. She was nervous, and emotional from having to relive these painful experiences.

But her testimony, and that of others who championed the bill, made a difference. HB 2676 passed the Oregon House. And not only did the bill have bipartisan support, it passed unanimously — every single lawmaker in the chamber (of which there are 60) voted in favor.

Before the bill could hit the Senate floor for a vote, the Republican walkout began. Now HB 2676 is stuck in limbo.

The Story got in touch with Harris again Tuesday to find out how she’s feeling with the walkout dragging on.

“All of the advocates that I’ve been working with so far have been of the mindset that this is not going to pass this term because it’s not even going to make its way for a vote — despite the fact that it’s budget-neutral, it’s not going to cost the taxpayers any more money, it’s bipartisan support from square one and it just makes common sense,” she said. “But unfortunately common sense doesn’t seem to be anything that’s happening right now in the legislature. And I really hope for the sake of all Oregonians that this changes, and this changes quickly.”

“What an incredible waste of time — because in the meantime, all of those other Kelseys that are all over the state are gonna not have the support and the funding that they need,” Harris continued.

Harris said she’s frustrated that lawmakers can’t figure out a way past this roadblock and come together to work on bills that would help a lot of Oregonians.

“If this doesn’t get passed this legislative session, then we start all over again. We have to literally start this bill from scratch, which is a waste of time, a waste of money and a waste of resources,” Harris said. “It’s very frustrating for me as one individual, just a mom that’s trying to get something done to help others. And (I’m) also angry … it makes me angry for not just myself but for everyone else, because as I said, nobody’s winning except the criminals by stalling this legislation. And I think more than anything else, I’m an Oregonian, all those senators are Oregonians, all the constituents they serve are Oregonians, and somehow Oregonians have not been able to come together and do the right thing.”

If the bill does not pass this session, Harris said she is willing to start that work all over again — for her daughter’s sake and for the sake of other domestic violence victims. But she’s hoping that she won’t have to.

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