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New Oregon commission tackles spiraling prison costs, misconceptions about crime October 29, 2011

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Once again, convicted thief Dean J. Sanders is costing taxpayers $30,000 a year.


He’s back in prison, where he’ll live at public expense for as long as 28 more years. The 40-year-old Eugene mechanic landed in a cell this month after he was caught selling parts from stolen cars.


With that, he also landed at the center of one of Oregon’s most daunting challenges: how to balance public safety against public expense. State officials say people like Sanders are draining government budgets at a pace that can’t be sustained. Already, Oregon’s public safety system — police, prosecutors, prisons — consumes more than $6 billion a year.


Now a seven-member Commission on Public Safety appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber is tackling the problem. The commission began work in August and must report back to Kitzhaber by Dec. 15.


Oregonians have much at stake.


Prison spending alone has soaked up ever more state money, hitting $1.3 billion out of the state’s $13.6 billion two-year general fund budget and squeezing everything from spending on adult foster care to children’s health. The cost has grown even as crime rates have declined — yet more growth is on the horizon.


The state Corrections Department projects that it will need an additional $600 million over the next 10 years to house 2,000 more inmates, an estimate that comes as the Legislature prepares to convene Feb. 1 for another round of cuts to state programs.


Finding ways to control prison costs is the core mission of the new commission, following the lead of states from coast to coast. Challenges include opposition from prosecutors and the public to lighter sentences, widespread misconceptions that crime is rising, and even squabbles over the accuracy of inmate projections and the rate that convicts return to prison.


Supreme Court Justice Paul DeMuniz, chairman of the new commission, said the biggest challenge could be changing public opinion.


“We need to address the disconnect between the large drop in crime and the public perception that they’re not safer,” DeMuniz said. “We need to explore reasons Oregonians do not feel safe.”


Texas finds success

The Commission on Public Safety is poking into all corners of Oregon’s criminal justice system — juvenile crime, mental health, drug and alcohol addictions, parole and probation, and the prison sentences blamed for a run-up in an inmate population that stands at 14,000.


It’s also turning to national experts and other states that have embraced “justice reinvestment,” the idea that public money does more good when spent on prevention and rehabilitation than on building prisons to hold more inmates for longer terms.


Experts say research now shows what’s effective at preventing crime and rehabilitating criminals, a switch from years of “program of the month” trial and error. Criminal justice professionals are more skilled at sorting criminals by risk, with more confidence in their ability to predict which offenders can be supervised outside a cell.


“We know what will make us safer,” DeMuniz said.


Reform supporters also have a powerful example of success: Texas, a state never known for coddling criminals.

In 2007, legislators faced $500 million in additional prison costs in their next budget in anticipation of 17,000 more inmates in five years. Led by Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden, they instead poured $241 million into community programs to head off criminal behavior and tighten supervision of parolees.

The effort paid off. An inmate population of 155,319 in August 2007 had reached only 156,382 by Sept. 30 of this year. Texas this year closed a prison — a first for the state.


The key, Madden said, was giving conservative and liberal legislators alike something to support. For conservatives, that turned out to be leaner government operations — more results at less cost. For liberals, that meant focusing more on rehabilitation such as drug treatment than retribution.


“We were still being tough on those who we needed to be tough with but making the best utilization of the criminal justice system,” said Madden, who recently shared his insights with the Oregon commission.


Oklahoma, meanwhile, has the country’s highest incarceration rate for women and ranks third for men.


“We all run on the platform of being tough on crime,” said Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican. “If you’re going to be tough on crime, the solution is to lock everyone up.”


But, Steele said, the state could no longer afford to do that. This summer, leaders started their own hunt for reforms and are now preparing to travel the state to raise public awareness.


Shrinking state budgets are forcing such conversations — and creating unusual alliances.


“For the first time in a long time, you’re seeing the appetite for fiscal conservatism matching up with the appetite for socially progressive approaches to justice,” said Robert Coombs, senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. In Ohio and North Carolina, he said, Democrats launched reform efforts, but Republicans kept them going.


“Soft on crime” card

Still, Oregon’s work is not without debate. The Oregon District Attorneys Association, for one, disputes the inmate forecast and doesn’t want it used to dilute prison terms that prosecutors say are a key reason crime rates have dropped.


Officials also argue over recidivism rates — the percentage of inmates convicted of new crimes within three years of their release. The Corrections Department calculates that 28 percent of convicts reoffend, but prosecutors say the number counts only felonies, offering an incomplete measure of how well prison and parole programs work.


Another big challenge will be convincing residents that they aren’t as threatened as they think. Portland State University researchers last year found that more than half the Oregonians they surveyed thought crime rates were on the rise.


FBI statistics show otherwise. From 1990 to 2010, violent crime rates dropped from five per 1,000 residents to 2.5, and property crime rates fell from 51 per 1,000 residents to 30 — both the lowest in more than 40 years.


“The public perception is what drives the political side of the equation,” Kitzhaber said. “It’s easy to play the ‘soft on crime’ card. I don’t underestimate the challenge of changing that paradigm.”


Offenders such as Sanders and Delandre M. Ingram don’t help.


Sanders first went to prison in 2008, sentenced for 28 crimes ranging from auto theft to burglary. He served 22 months, returning to Lane County in early 2010. Before long, he was taking drugs and running a “chop shop” outside Junction City, parting stolen cars with a backhoe and burying the scraps.


Police pinned him for 15 cars, including one stolen the morning of their raid last May. Sanders was convicted at trial and began a 28-year sentence Oct. 6.


Ingram, 43, went to prison for the third time in 2004 after robbing a check-cashing store. He got out in early 2010 and convinced his parole officer that he had forsaken crime. He hadn’t.


Five months after his release, Ingram and a partner came up behind a woman locking an east Portland check-cashing store for the night. They forced her inside at gunpoint and took several thousand dollars. Ingram then robbed another check-cashing store, clubbing a woman employee with his pistol.


He pleaded guilty last April, accepting 11 1/2 years in prison.


Kitzhaber said that keeping others from the same path will require reforms as dramatic as those crafted for education and health care. Others agree.


“If we simply maintain current practices, the resulting trajectory of our costs is unsustainable,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, a commission member. “We must identify and promote wise choices.”


Fall FAMM Newsletter Is Available October 28, 2011

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The Fall FAMM Newsletter has just been released.  There is a link at the bottom of this post.  I wanted to include here the great message by Julie Stewart, FAMM President.

Happy Birthday, FAMM! Who could have imagined two decades ago that my brother’s conviction for growing marijuana would lead to the launch of an organization that would last 20 years! I would never have believed it. I was sure we could “fix” this problem of long mandatory minimum sentences within five years and I would move on to do something else with my life.

Ha! Little did I know how much resistance we would face to the principle of justice that is commonly accepted throughout this country – that the punishment should fit the crime and the offender’s role in the crime. What could be clearer? What could be more American?! Yet, in Congress and state houses everywhere, lawmakers have manipulated that principle to suggest that it means being soft on crime. Being fair is being soft? No, I don’t accept that interpretation. And neither do you. And that’s why FAMM is still here, 20 years later, fighting for the kind of individualized sentencing that everyone deserves.

FAMM’s focus on individualized sentences means we oppose mandatory minimums for all crimes. That’s why you’ll see on pages 8-9 a number of federal bills we’re trying to strip mandatory minimums from. Even if the sentences aren’t long, allowing them to get through reinforces the idea that mandatory minimums are okay and encourages other legislators to propose them. No sentence is acceptable if it prevents a judge from considering all the facts of the case. Take a look at the profiles on page 14 and you’ll see how one-size-fits-all sentencing fails miserably in delivering justice. That’s the message we have to hammer home again and again.

Twenty years ago when I wrote the first FAMM newsletter, I closed it by saying, “Your life is important to us. As the saying goes, ‘the wheels of justice turn very slowly,’ but we are trying to speed them up. You are not alone in this struggle.”

Those words still ring true. Last week I received a thank you note from a federal prisoner who was sentenced in the early 90s to life in prison for a nonviolent crack cocaine offense. After FAMM’s crack victory in 2007, his life sentence was lifted and changed to 30 years. After FAMM’s crack victory this year (see page 7), he is expecting to be released by the end of the year. He ended his letter with these words, “You are the reason I have this life sentence off me now. I am a friend always.” His words went straight to my heart. And while I alone cannot take credit for his imminent freedom, it is profoundly satisfying to know that FAMM – all of us together – have forced the wheels of justice to move faster and prevented this man from living out the rest of his life in prison.

After 20 years of nose to the grindstone, it’s time to pause and celebrate our 20 years of victories (see timeline on page 4). But when the candles are blown out and the cake is eaten, it’s time to get back to work to so we can change the course of thousands more lives.

My very best –
Julie Stewart



A new approach to fighting crime October 25, 2011

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Texas State Rep. Jerry Madden is nobody’s idea of a bleeding-heart liberal, but he could be mistaken for one when he talks about sentencing reform.

Oregonians — especially those who support the state’s mandatory-minimum sentencing laws such as Measure 11 and Measure 57 — should pay attention to Madden’s advice. Spend more on substance abuse and mental health treatment, he says, beef up parole and probation supervision and spend less on prisons — a lot less.

That’s just what famously tough-on-crime Texas has done. Under Madden’s leadership as chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, Texas spent $300 million doing a better job of keeping people out of prison instead of the estimated $2 billion on new prisons that would have been needed if the state had kept doing things the old-fashioned way.

Now Madden is the go-to expert on sentencing reform, advising states across the U.S. and the national government of Canada on a new approach to crime and criminals. He was in Southern Oregon last week for a meeting of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Commission on Public Safety.

The commission, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz, is charged with figuring out new ways to keep Oregon communities safe while reducing the cost to the taxpayers and holding criminals accountable.

Oregon already is a leader in innovative approaches to criminal justice. Its drug courts and family courts — Jackson County’s are considered models — have proven effective in addressing the substance abuse that underlies a great deal of criminal behavior.

But Oregon’s system is burdened by voter-approved mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have required the state to build and staff more prisons. Since 1995, the state prison population has doubled from 7,000 to 14,000, and is projected to reach nearly 16,000 by 2018 — a 160 percent increase since 1990.

Much of that is the result of Measure 11, enacted by voters in 1994, which requires lengthy sentences for several violent crimes. Measure 57, passed in 2008, imposes longer sentences for repeat property and drug crimes — and requires drug and alcohol treatment for some offenders. The Legislature delayed implementing Measure 57 temporarily to help balance the budget in the 2009 session, but it will take effect in January, further driving up costs.

Madden’s approach in Texas leaned heavily on more treatment and better supervision of those on parole and probation, which costs far less than building and staffing prisons. But Texas didn’t have to deal with voter-enacted sentencing laws.

The Commission on Public Safety is just beginning its work. So far, its approach has been to study successful sentencing reform efforts proven to save money and keep the public safe at the same time.

Criticism is bound to come from vocal supporters of the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key philosophy, who will predict soaring crime rates and threats to public safety if reforms are implemented. Those critics should wait and let the commission do its work.

If Texas can do it, so can Oregon.


Oh So Close October 24, 2011

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Update from FAMM:

Over the last few months, we asked you to call, email and all but shout from the rooftops to convince Congress to pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (NCJCA), a bill that would lead to a top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system. You responded and we got oh-so-close yesterday!  The U.S. Senate vote was 57 – 43, just three votes short of getting the NCJCA included as part of a fiscal 2012 spending bill.

Because of your tireless work, every Senate Democrat and Independent voted for the NCJCA amendment and so did four Senate Republicans. We would love for you to send them a thank you note, letting them know that they have constituents who share their concerns that the criminal justice system needsreview.


Even if your U.S. senators did not vote for the NCJCA amendment, you should write them to urge them to reconsider their position on it.  It’s not dead – it just didn’t move forward yesterday.  We’re fighting to bring it up again during this Congress and we want members of Congress to know that their constituents support it.


Please click here to find out how your U.S. senators voted and thank them for voting for the NCJCA, or urge them to reconsider their position and support it in the future.

Thanks again for getting us so close.  Next time, we’ll win!


‘We have to get smart on crime’ October 21, 2011

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DeMuniz, who plans to retire in January 2013, has been appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber to head the Oregon Commission on Public Safety, with the expectation the commission will present lawmakers with a comprehensive plan to save money and reduce the crime rate by 2013.

The process, DeMuniz said, will be arduous and will rely on politicians on both sides of the aisle to come together for reform.

“We have to get away from the idea of soft on crime, tough on crime,” DeMuniz said. “We have to get smart on crime.”

DeMuniz has looked to other states for ideas in how to corral the spiraling costs of incarceration. In doing so, he has approached Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, who heads that state’s corrections committee, to share ideas on how to keep the public safe without building new prisons.

“We have to make the public understand that we can make communities safer with less cost,” DeMuniz said.

Among the problems Oregon faces is a public safety budget hit hard by the recession and a rising prison population brought about by the Measure 11 sentencing guidelines that call for mandatory minimum sentences.

More than half of Oregon’s 14,000 prisoners were sentenced on Measure 11 crimes, DeMuniz said.

“The increasing lengths of stay in the prisons had increased the need for new beds,” he said.

Madden, a Republican who has become one of country’s leaders in corrections reform, said he has worked to keep Texas from building expensive prisons by giving post-prison supervisors and alcohol and drug treatment programs more leeway — and more funding — to keep convicts from repeating past mistakes.

The goal, Madden said, is to ensure offenders do not violate conditions of their parole or probation, which sends them back into the justice system, often on minor charges.

“We have found that probation keeps a lot of people on probation,” Madden said.

DeMuniz and Madden believe that money saved from building and maintaining prisons should be diverted to treatment programs, mental health care and drug courts, putting offenders into social service programs that could help them get sober or find a job — and keep them out of jail.

“When we put some of these things in place in Texas, we decreased the governor’s public safety budget,” Madden said.

The strategy going forward is to convince prosecutors and defense attorneys to drop the adversarial  posture toward each other.

“They need to come together to solve a person’s problem,” he said.

The public safety commission’s report is due by December. From there, DeMuniz hopes that the commission will be granted a continuance by the Legislature to collect more data.

DeMuniz said it would be 2013 at the earliest before the reforms could be adopted.


Head off the prison boom October 14, 2011

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As the new Public Safety Commission considers where it should go with sentencing reform, we have a suggestion:

Hold at 14,000.

At its first meeting, the commission appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber learned that over the next decade Oregon’s prison population is anticipated to balloon by 2,000 additional inmates. Already, there are 14,000 people incarcerated in Oregon prisons. The cost of another prison boom? More than $600 million in new prison construction and operating expenses.

There must be a better, different way. As a matter of public safety and overall state spending, it makes little sense to plunge blindly ahead with sentencing policies that require hundreds of millions of new spending on prisons. Look at the facts: Crime is down to 40-year lows. Oregon faces long-term budget deficits. It can’t even give its kids full school years. And yet we’re supposed to open three more prisons over the next decade?

No, let’s hold at 14,000. Avoiding yet another prison boom ought to be the explicit goal of the Public Safety Commission, which will send proposals to the next Legislature.

This is not a call to mess with Measure 11, the voter-approved mandatory minimum sentences for those who commit violent crimes. That would be a fool’s errand for this commission, which has neither the political muscle nor the public support to take up Measure 11. Maybe some day, but not now.

But it is a plea to directly confront the ill-timed and unnecessary expansion of prison sentences for nonviolent property offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems. About half of the estimated 2,000-inmate increase over the next decade is tied to the implementation of Measure 57, which was approved by voters in 2009, but suspended by legislators until next year.

The commission ought to urge legislators to suspend Measure 57 indefinitely, or ask voters to repeal it. The longer sentences are unnecessary — again, property crime is on the decrease. Moreover, many other states, notably Texas, a place not exactly famous for its progressive corrections policies, are demonstrating that there are better, smarter and less costly ways to combat property and other nonviolent crime.

These states are busily diverting low-level inmates away from high-cost prisons, not embracing unneeded and high-cost prison stays. They are creating new arrangements and funding connections with county jails, embracing electronic surveillance and close supervision, investing in drug and alcohol treatment and cognitive training and job skills. They are keeping more inmates away from the front door of prisons and ushering them somewhat sooner out the back. And yet they, too, are seeing crime rates continue to fall.

Change is hard, especially when it comes to public safety policies. Fear of crime is much higher than the rate of crime. Oregon prosecutors strongly support the status quo, the citizen-backed measures that lengthen sentences and give them more leverage in negotiations with those accused of crimes. Prison forecasting has proven less than accurate in the past. And counties worry about whether state funding would actually follow reforms that expand the use of county jails and supervision programs.

All that’s true. But it’s also a fact that Oregon is already struggling to pay for the costs of the 14,000 people that already crowd into its prisons. Almost a dime of every general fund dollar in Oregon goes to prisons. Surely that’s enough.


Make your calls today! October 5, 2011

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Today is the day!  I encourage you, your friends and family, and all of the networks you’re a part of to join today’s national call-in day! Call U.S. Senate leadership today and ask them to prioritize and pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, S. 306:



SAVE THE DATE: October 5, National Call-In Day! October 3, 2011

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On Wednesday, October 5, FAMM members will join other national organizations and thousands of people across the country in a National Call-In Day. People across the country will call Senate leadership – Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – and ask them to make the criminal justice system more fair, support public safety and reduce costs to taxpayers by passing S. 306, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.

S. 306 would create a bipartisan commission to review current criminal justice policies and make recommendations for system-wide reform. We believe that any review of the criminal justice system will necessarily include a review (and rejection) of mandatory minimums.

We think that this Commission will help move the ball forward and bring about reform but we need your help to make it happen.

To participate, mark your calendar for October 5. FAMM will send out contact information for Senators Reed and McConnell as well as talking points the morning of October 5.  Let’s inundate them with calls!


As Prison Population Grows, Costs Increase October 2, 2011

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Flanked by its seven members, Gov. John Kitzhaber said Friday that a blue-ribbon panel has the task of balancing how to keep the worst criminal offenders in prison with how to stem the state’s rising costs of running those prisons.

“At this time, when we are struggling with scarce resources, I think it is important we make sure that every state dollar is spent as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Kitzhaber said at a news conference at the Capitol.

One of the tasks of the Commission on Public Safety, which held its first in-person meeting Friday in Salem, is to look at sentencing practices.

The state adopted sentencing guidelines in 1989. But a series of ballot measures — including mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes that voters approved as Measure 11 in 1994 — have caused the state’s prison population to more than double from 6,500 to 14,000. The original Measure 11 listed 16 crimes; the current number is 23.

About 40 percent of state inmates are housed for Measure 11 crimes.

“The sentencing guidelines have been trumped by citizen initiatives and legislative referrals,” said Craig Prins, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which is doing the staff work for the panel.

Although the overall crime rate is dropping, Kitzhaber said Oregon is projected to add 2,000 more prison beds by the end of the decade if current trends hold. The latest state forecast, issued Friday, holds close to that projection. But it also said the actual number of inmates is down by about 100 from the previous forecast six months ago — and that legislative action to modify a 2010 ballot initiative will reduce the long-term total by about 360.

According to a Criminal Justice Commission report earlier this year, 58 percent of offenders charged with Measure 11 crimes in 2008 were not convicted of them, although 49 percent were convicted of other crimes — and just 29 percent were convicted of the most serious offense charged under Measure 11.

District attorneys in Oregon’s 36 counties issued their own warning about changes in sentencing.

“Cost appears to be an important consideration of the commission and the Legislature in determining how long sentences should be,” said the statement by Daniel Norris, Malheur County district attorney.

“Projecting prison populations is an inexact science and should not be the grounding factor to change public safety policy. The commission should be cautious in its reliance on historically inexact or inflated data.”

But Dick Withnell of Salem, the commission’s public member, said continuing state budget difficulties compel policy-makers to come up with alternatives.

“Oregonians are counting on us to put partisan labels aside, roll up our sleeves and solve problems,” Withnell said.

Aside from sentencing changes, which will require either two-thirds majorities in the Legislature or voter approval, Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, said the cost of health care — particularly for aging inmates — is something lawmakers ought to deal with.

Of the overall two-year corrections budget of $1.4 billion, Winters said health-care costs accounted for $200 million and growing.

“If we do nothing, that trajectory will compete with the childhood and education dollars the governor is talking about,” said Winters, Senate co-chairwoman of the public safety budget subcommittee.

The commission already has met twice via telephone conference call. It is scheduled under Kitzhaber’s executive order that created it to submit recommendations by Dec. 15. But Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who leads the commission, said he expects that the commission will ask lawmakers to extend its work.

Three other commission meetings are scheduled in the next few months, including a final meeting Dec. 2 in Salem.

The commission was the idea of former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who proposed it last year as part of a broad effort to reshape state government in a “reset” report. Kulongoski, who is Kitzhaber’s appointee to the commission, said that there is a reason for the commission other than proposing savings in the state prison budget.

“As a community and a state, we have to invest in those programs and policies that will actually keep people from getting into crime,” said Kulongoski, also a former attorney general and Supreme Court justice.

Oregon Corrections Population Forecast (Oct. 2011)