TWO YEARS BEFORE Pedersen’s robberies, Oregon voters transformed the system that dealt with young offenders. Like many states, Oregon was reeling from high crime rates in an era when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani vowed to clean up New York City and President Bill Clinton’s landmark crime bill promised 100,000 new police officers on the streets. Juvenile gun homicides doubled nationwide between 1985 and 1995, and news reports warned of a rising generation of “super predators.” Forty-six states rewrote the laws to make it easier to punish minors as adults. This marked a significant departure: most countries rarely try youth under 18, or even 21, as adults.
In Oregon, an ambitious state representative named Kevin Mannix, a Democrat who would later turn Republican and run unsuccessfully for attorney general and governor, crafted a ballot measure that bound judges to specific minimum sentences for more than a dozen violent felonies. Measure 11 also decreed that youths older than 15 charged with one of the crimes enumerated by the act be tried—and, if convicted, sentenced—as adults.
Proponents of Measure 11 argued that judges too often used discretion to give lenient sentences. Mannix led the campaign with Steve Doell, whose 12-year-old daughter, Lisa, had been murdered by a 16-year-old stranger who served just 28 months.
“These are sentences for intentional, absolute use of force against innocent victims,” said an argument for the proposed law in the 1994 Voters’ Pamphlet. “Career criminals will learn that crime in Oregon does not pay.” Measure 11, promising to add over 6,000 beds to the state’s prisons, passed overwhelmingly.
Pedersen thus faced adult charges and adult time. He pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree robbery in a deal to reduce more serious charges, and Measure 11 dictated a 70-month sentence without parole. In the five years before Measure 11 was implemented, only 6 percent of juveniles who committed Pedersen’s crime were tried as adults.
In a routine assessment, the state Department of Corrections determined Pedersen’s potential for violence to be “slight.” Like all other young offenders convicted under Measure 11, he would serve his time in juvenile facilities unless he turned 25 before his sentence ended. He went to a space in Newport’s Lincoln County jail leased by the Oregon Youth Authority, where his situation soured. “If they’re going to treat me like an animal,” he wrote to a friend, “I’ll be one.”
Pedersen racked up nearly a dozen disciplinary reports, and as a result spent much of his time in his room or maximum-security units. Some reports seem trivial—for example, Pedersen and a counselor argued about Pedersen’s request for larger underwear. But Newport police were notified when Pedersen hit a fellow student. Following the assault, Pedersen told a counselor, “You’re wasting your time. Someone who wants to benefit from the juvenile system would be more deserving of your energy.”
Pedersen went to MacLaren Youth Correctional Institution in Woodburn. Though an intake test again found his potential for violence to be slight, the board overseeing juveniles urged a move to adult prison. MacLaren staff submitted a request to the Department of Corrections: “Please transfer [Pedersen] to adult corrections as soon as possible.”
ON JUNE 18, 1997, his 17th birthday, the custody board granted MacLaren’s request and transferred Pedersen to an adult prison, Salem’s Oregon State Correctional Institution.
“I figured it would be less petty than juvenile prison, that there would be less silly rules,” says Pedersen now. “I was young and naive.”
In Oregon, a small percentage of young offenders are sent to adult prison, due to a failure to engage in treatment or because they pose a danger to staff and others—since 1995, less than 300 out of thousands in the youth authority’s custody. Even so, many mental health and corrections professionals contend that imprisoning juveniles alongside adults is always a mistake. (This year, Canada passed a law forbidding the practice.) Michael Caldwell, a psychologist, helped found Wisconsin’s innovative Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in 1995. He researches aggressive mental-health therapy focused on connecting teens to family and school, conducted in secure juvenile-only facilities not unlike MacLaren. “Social bonds to conventional society make people behave in a conventional way,” Caldwell says. “These bonds give the person a realistic picture of themselves functioning well.” The Wisconsin facility has yielded promising results so far, with studies showing its “graduates” less likely to commit serious, violent crimes than peers released from other facilities.
A slim, 160-pound 17-year-old, Pedersen fought with older inmates. After eight days, he went into solitary confinement. Soon, the Department of Corrections petitioned the state’s custody board to return Pedersen to the juvenile system. The board denied the appeal, citing his “assaultive” behavior. “I just want to thank you for your help in trying to get me back to the juvenile system,” Pedersen wrote to his prison counselor. “I will try to make the best of my time here at OSCI once I get back in [the] general population.”
Over the following years, Pedersen was locked in his cell 23 hours a day and steeped in the violence of his surroundings. An inmate caught fire while being pepper-sprayed by officers in view of Pedersen’s food slot. “After he stopped writhing, they shackled him,” he recalls. In a letter to a friend, he recounted shaking hands with the Boxcar Killer, a notorious serial murderer found guilty of killing 34 drifters and homeless men.
Pedersen also befriended other convicts sent to prison before they were 18. There was Jeremy Roberts, who ran away at 13 and later started a riot at a juvenile detention center that earned him adult time. Gary Cavan was convicted of assault at 14 in 1996 and has been incarcerated ever since.
“All I really know is prison,” says Cavan today from a Texas facility. “What do they expect when they lock up young kids and throw them in the penitentiary? Are you not supposed to be bitter and filled with hate?”
The young men embraced white supremacy, an ideology found in prisons across the country. “We are men who hold strongly to the Aryan virtues of Honor and Integrity,” writes Alan Watkins, one of Pedersen’s friends, in a letter from the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon. “Some time ago, I came to the realization that I would likely never get out of prison, and I determined that I would live my life on my own code.” In 1995, as an eighth-grader, Watkins was convicted of murdering his foster mother and sentenced to life. His cell was next to Pedersen’s at Snake River, and the two would talk for hours through a vent.
State corrections staff flagged Pedersen and his friends as associates of Aryan Soldiers, one prison gang out of 119 identified by the Oregon Department of Justice in a 2006 report. This particular clique is known to be more radical than other white supremacist prison gangs, according to Robb Anderson, a Multnomah County probation officer assigned to Aryan gang members. “Inside, it’s segregated,” says Anderson. “You have to join a gang to protect yourself, but [Pedersen] chose to involve himself with a group known for hardcore violence on the offense.”