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The root of Oregon’s insufficient funding February 18, 2009

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Friday night I opened a very thoughtful e-mail on the condition of education funding and asking for increased funding for K-12 education.

It was late in the evening and I found myself responding much more fully than I usually do at that time of night after a difficult week. After writing that e-mail response I decided I would share it more widely through this message. I wrote:

"I certainly agree with you. The problem is that the citizens of Oregon (including the citizens of our rich district) have refused to vote sufficient funds to keep services in our state at a reasonable level. When measure 5 passed (the 1.5% property tax limitation) the funding of schools was passed to the state, without providing any source of funding to pay for those schools. After that the citizens passed measure 11 (minimum sentences for crimes) which doubled our prison budget. We now spend more on prisons than we spend on higher education.

Oregon ranks 45th in the country on per capita local and state taxes, largely because most states have a property tax, an income tax, and a sales tax, shared among the local areas and the state. We have only two of those sources. And each time we vote to increase taxes, even on a temporary basis, the measure is referred to the voters and rejected. If I remember correctly the last time we proposed a modest sales tax it was rejected 80-20.

Currently we spend 92% of the budget on three things; education, public safety (including prisons), and services for the aged, poor, and disabled. We are now faced with a significant budget shortage. Our biennial budget (general funds and lottery funds) is about $17 billion. The severe economic downturn has caused major downward revisions in revenue estimates. (Remember when the revenue exceeds the forecast we send the money back to taxpayers in the kicker, rather than being able to save the surplus for a time like this.) We are told we need to cut about $800 million out of the remainder of this biennium’s budget. That is the five months left of the 24 month budget period. And we are told we need to reduce next biennium’s budget by at least $2.5 billion. We hope the federal stimulus package will provide some relief, but that is not certain.

Assuming the budget is about $4 billion for each six month period, we need to cut $800 million out of that last $4 billion. Imagine if education is excluded from these cuts and we can’t shut down the prisons because of measure 11 and for other reasons. To balance the budget we would probably need to stop providing medical care under the Medicaid program (removing a couple of billion of federal dollars from Oregon), stop providing care for people in nursing homes, stop providing foster care, and other impossible things. And most of this we could not do even if we wanted to do so. Consequently schools are going to take their share of the hit. And we could do that same exercise for the 2009-2011 budget, which looks even bleaker.

Every day I visit with constituents who have very important messages to give me. "Don’t cut funding to Head Start." "Don’t reduce services to frail elderly." "Fully fund mental health services." "Increase mandatory sentences for sex offenders." "Provide free tuition at our universities for returning veterans." "Provide more support for poor college students." "Increase requirements for high school graduation." And on and on and on. And then over and over, "don’t increase our tax burden during a recession" or "you can’t tax your way out of a recession."

We are going to balance our budget, as our constitution requires us to do. And we are going to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the state. And perhaps we will even look for a way to increase revenue. But we are going to need to have our constituents behind us. And we are all going to have to find ways to mitigate the destruction to our families during this most difficult time."

–Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland; mitchgreenlick@msn.com


Oregon prison law in budget lockdown February 16, 2009

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On Election Day, legislators cut a deal with Oregon voters.

They asked voters to approve Measure 57, increasing prison time for repeat property and drug criminals and attacking the cause of much of that crime with drug and alcohol treatment for offenders.

Voters approved the measure in November and rejected a more expensive and severe alternative. But now the Legislature — mired in a deepening recession that has slashed state revenues — doesn’t have the money to keep its part of the bargain.

The harsh new economic landscape is reflected in Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s proposed 2009-11 budget, which provides for only half the estimated cost of implementing Measure 57, including about $20 million of the $40 million that was promised for drug and alcohol treatment programs.

The budget gap is causing angst among legislative leaders who promoted Measure 57 as a better proposal than Measure 61 and prompting criticism from the chief sponsor of that rejected initiative.

"If they give short shrift to treatment, I think they have seriously violated the trust of the voters," says Salem attorney and former legislator Kevin Mannix. "The strongest argument they had was that 57 had a treatment component and 61 did not. They’ve got to keep that promise, and that costs money."

The $20 million for treatment "was what we thought was absolutely the best we could do" in the face of a mammoth shortfall that grows worse every month, says Joe O’Leary, Kulongoski’s chief public safety adviser.

"The ground is still moving beneath it, and we don’t know when it’s going to end," O’Leary said.

Measure 57 took effect Jan. 1, and the first inmate sentenced under its terms, a 20-year-old man who pleaded guilty to a charge of burglary in Linn County, entered the prison system Jan. 29. State prosecutors expect the number of Measure 57 sentences to pick up in the spring, probably around April.

The state projects that more than 1,400 Measure 57 inmates will enter the prison system between now and June 2011, the end of the next budget cycle.

To house them, corrections officials have put together a patchwork plan that relies heavily on the use of temporary beds at 11 institutions across the state. The beds will go into existing prison housing units, classroom space now used for education and training, health care facilities, even an area at one prison that visitors use for "televisiting" with inmates.

"People don’t like to use the word ‘crowding,’ but that essentially is what it is," says Nathan Allen, the Department of Corrections’ planning and budget administrator.

Many of the temporary beds will be placed in minimum-security prisons, which Allen said is not ideal because the minimum-security facilities are where most inmates go on their way out of the prison system, not as they enter. But the minimum-security prisons are the least expensive to operate.

Complicating the department’s planning, state officials last week announced a list of potential spending cuts to close a projected $800 million gap for the next five months. The options included closing eight minimum-security prisons.

It could have been worse. The cost of fully implementing Measure 57 between now and June 2011 was estimated at $162 million. Estimates for implementing Mannix’s Measure 61 ranged from $197 million to $276 million.



Oregon Sheriffs Face Decision On Who To Release Because of Jail Crowding February 8, 2009

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Counties across Oregon are dealing with jails hitting full capacity, forcing sheriffs to decide who stays and who’s released.

"The plumbing is backing up," said Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen. "I’ve got 10 people in jail right now – that’s over my bed allotment at the Union County Jail. I can matrix them out (release them) but the problem is you get these little dirt bags out and they go on a rampage."

Oregonians made it clear last November they don’t want criminals back on the street. More than 60 percent of voters approved Measure 57, which mandates jail time for a variety of drug and property crimes that might earlier have resulted in probation, rather than sentencing.

Measure 57 may affect jail bed-space as time goes on, but it has nothing to do with current problems, according to Wallowa County District Attorney Mona Kay Williams. There are two causes of the increase in inmates from Wallowa County, in her estimation. Firstly, there have been some serious crimes committed in the county and the suspects are in jail until their cases can come to court. Secondly, Williams is establishing consequences for parole and probation violations and sending violators off to serve their time when they repeatedly fail to fulfill their release obligations.

"In most misdemeanor cases, defendants are placed on probationary period of anywhere from 12 to 36 months – that’s what’s called a bench probation," she explained. "There’s no place they report or probation officer that checks on them (except in cases of domestic assault 4 or sexual abuse 3), it’s kind of a honor system. In the past, they had to do community service or enter into drug rehab and pay their fees. There was no enforcement of that and probations were running out with people not fulfilling their obligations. We’ve pushed to make sure those probationary provisions are enforced."

That was a change that has been welcomed, said Gary L. Gekeler, probation officer for the Union-Wallowa County Community Corrections Program. "You feel more of a reward doing my job when there are consequences for violators," he said.

Gekeler currently has 42 individuals on probation. Another dozen are on probation but have absconded. Both of those numbers are average, Gekeler said.

"We’re getting more and more sentenced people in," Steen said of the district attorney’s firm discipline. "I suspect the raise in numbers is due to a combination of things: probation violators being sentenced, the economy, and our number of sentenced individuals keeps going up."

In fact, the 10 people Steen has in jail right now are the most he has ever had at one time. "The highest we’ve had since I’ve been around was an average of 7.1 beds in use," he said. "In the past our daily fill rate has ebbed and flowed from three to five to 10 to two, but in the last few months our fill rate has been consistently high and that’s affecting Union County."

It is a real problem, according to Steen, the district attorney and the commissioners, and they are looking at solutions.

"Summer is usually the timeframe where we normally have more beds full," said Williams. "The fact that we’ve had our beds full through November to January is an indication that we need to do something. It certainly is an issue that needs to be resolved."

It is not just a problem for Wallowa County, according to Steen. "This is more of a regional problem," he said. "Rural counties just don’t have the money to operate their own jails. We’re constantly trying to watch our pennies around here. The Union County Sheriff’s Office and La Grande Police Department are feeling the pinch, too."

Interim Chief of Police Derick Reedington of La Grande confirmed that. "There’s just not enough bed space," he said. "We’ve issued some citations instead of jail-time. In today’s world it comes down to money."

Which jail?

Pinching pennies is what led to Wallowa County’s $146,000-per-year contract with the Union County Jail, and budgetary decisions were prime motivators in moves back and forth from various jail systems over the last decade. Wallowa County first moved from the Union County Jail to the Umatilla County Jail in 2001 and then from Umatilla back to the Union County Jail in July 2007. Both moves saved the county tens of thousands of dollars, Steen reported.

"When I took office in 2001 I looked at our contract budget with Union County and negotiated a cheaper contract with Umatilla county which saved us about $70-80,000 even with the extra transport costs," Steen said.

Then, in 2007, Wallowa County commissioners, the D.A. and the sheriff’s office re-examined issues and crunched numbers again.

"There had always been a concern of our circuit court judges and the defense bar that prisoners were too far away," Steen said. "About two years ago, Union County Sheriff Rasmussen approached me about the possibility of moving our contract back to Union County. We hammered out an agreement that provided us with a similar agreement to what we had in Umatilla County and it was a savings again. It was a small reduction in the daily rate and reduced transport costs by approximately $10,000 per year."

That savings may be wiped out by the increase in inmates housed and perhaps the possibility of going back to hauling them to Umatilla.

Transporting and jailing inmates in Union County is still the preferred solution. However, although the Union County Jail has a basement that could hold another 12 beds, and Wallowa County helped to construct those beds with its state and county funds in the mid-1990s, that space is currently occupied by the "Merit" Drug Task Force and conversion of the space would represent significant expense for Union County.

To justify the opening of or construction of more space, the Union County Jail would have to show a cost benefit. It currently has a budget of approximately $1.4 million, which covers everything from toilet paper to medical treatment for inmates to wages for guards and support staff. That money pays for the wages of 11 individuals, not counting reserve officers, who help out, or the as-needed work crew supervisor, according to Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen. Maximizing those corrections dollars, keeping the right people in prison, and creating accountability for scoff-laws guilty of repeat misdemeanor offenses, has gotten to be a delicate balancing act for the agencies that share the Union County Jail.

"We have to balance the safety of citizens against how many Wallowa County prisoners we take," said Rasmussen. "As of late we’ve been matrixing more inmates than usual. Our capacity is 36, and eight beds are guaranteed for Wallowa County. If Wallowa County needs to send us four more, and there is room for another four, we can take them. But we’re capped at 36 and we’ll have to work with that."

Wallowa County has 12 beds of its own in the three-year-old Wallowa County Justice Center, but those don’t look like a solution to the overflow right now, according to Steen. Law enforcement officers use those 12 beds to house prisoners up to 36 hours before transport or while waiting for court dates. Thanks to a "rural exception" and a design that divides inmates into two separate modules, Wallowa County can hold both juveniles and adult inmates for that time. However, in order for the county to use the facility as a residential jail a few modifications would have to be made, an exercise yard would have to be built, food and laundry services contracted, and a crew of four to six full-time employees would have to be hired.

"Financially, for this county, its much more sensible to contract the service out," Steen said. "Just to begin the process to operate this as a resident jail, not counting paychecks for employees, would be $80 to $100,000."

The older jail facility in the courthouse does not meet any state standards; it is an old brig from a ship that was installed in the courthouse in the early 1900s.

There is no shortage of beds in Umatilla County Jail, according to Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo, but those beds do not come free, either.

"It’s $55 per day," said Trumbo. "It goes up to $56 per day in July. We’ve got plenty of beds. If Wallowa County wants to bring them, we’ll take them. I told Sheriff Steen that if he wanted 15 beds, we’d give him 15 beds. Of course, transportation would be Wallowa County’s responsibility."


Some cities look other way in hiring of former inmates February 3, 2009

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. Hoping to prevent convicts from being shut out of the work force, some major U.S. cities are eliminating questions from their job applications that ask whether prospective employees have ever been convicted of a crime.

Most of the cities still conduct background checks after making conditional job offers, but proponents say the new approach will help more convicts find work and reduce the likelihood they will commit new crimes.

"This makes sense in terms of reducing violence. The amount of recidivism committing crimes again in this population is dramatic, and it has taken a toll on this community," said John DeStefano, mayor of New Haven, where officials recently proposed a so-called "ban the box" ordinance that drops the criminal history question from job applications.

Similar measures have been adopted in recent years in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Baltimore, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., and Norwich, Conn. Los Angeles and other cities are considering doing so.
Some cities such as Chicago continue to conduct criminal background checks for all positions. Others such as Boston do so only when reviewing applicants for school jobs or other sensitive duties.

In New Haven, 25 former prisoners arrive each week after being released. Without help, about 10 of them will return to a life of crime, officials said. The city has some 5,000 residents on probation or parole.

New Haven’s existing application asks whether prospective employees have ever been convicted of anything other than minor traffic violations or juvenile offenses.

Shelton Tucker, a New Haven resident who served five years in prison for assault with a firearm, said he has lost countless job opportunities because of his record.

"There were some times I was tempted to go back to my old way of making money," Tucker said. "I fell off the wagon a few times. You get stuck with this decision of telling the truth and possibly never being called or lying to get the job and losing it later."

Tucker, who was recently laid off from a glass company because of the weak economy, said eliminating the criminal history question would encourage more people to apply for jobs. But, he said, the policy will not solve the problem, noting that criminal background checks would still be conducted.

"In a way, it’s just window dressing," Tucker said.

Cities that have dropped the question could not say how many convicts they have hired. Baltimore has had a hiring freeze since it banned the box nearly a year ago, officials said.

Proponents acknowledge that changing the application is not a panacea, but they insist it allows people with criminal records to get a foot in the door.

Cities are also creating standards for determining whether a criminal record is relevant to the job.

In Chicago, where more than 20,000 inmates return from prison annually and two-thirds are arrested within three years, the city adopted a hiring policy to balance the nature and severity of the crime with other factors, such as the passage of time and evidence of rehabilitation.

San Francisco also considers factors such as the time elapsed since the conviction and evidence of rehabilitation.

Boston’s job application starts with an antidiscrimination statement and lists "ex-offender status" as a classification protected under civil rights laws. The city only does criminal background checks for sensitive positions such as jobs with police, schools, and positions involving large amounts of money or unsupervised contact with children, the disabled and elderly.

Boston officials sent a letter last month requiring companies that do business with the city to comply with that policy.

"What are these folks going to do if they cannot work?" said Larry Mayes, chief of human services for Boston. "You’re creating a permanent underclass."