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Blue-Ribbon Panel To Take On Corrections Costs September 28, 2011

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Prisons are eating up more and more of Oregon’s budget. A blue-ribbon panel convened by Governor John Kitzhaber will meet Friday to look at ways to reign in corrections spending. But it’s not clear whether there’s consensus to do something about it.

Oregonians really like mandatory minimum sentences. Voters passed Measure 11 back in 1994, and more recently approved Measure 57 and Measure 73. The measures set minimum terms for everything from murder to repeat drunk driving.

But do these sentencing laws drive up corrections costs?

“Yes, that would be an understatement,” says Tung Yin, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. He’s studied the effect of mandatory minimum sentences on the criminal justice system.

“It’s not surprising that the public likes them,” Yin says. “The problem is is that the cost of it, if you will, is not really made clear when you vote on these measures. I mean, there may be an estimate of the actual impact but there’s no real enforcement mechanism.”

In other words, if more people than anticipated wind up getting sentenced, the prison system responds by increasing capacity, and Oregon has been doing just that.

Since 1994, when voters approved Measure 11, the portion of the state’s budget devoted to the Oregon Department of Corrections has more than doubled, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. Even long-time tough-on-crime advocates say it’s time to look at correction spending.

Doug Harcleroad is a former district attorney and now lobbies for the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance.

“Well at this point in time, Oregon doesn’t have any money, he says. “I mean, we have money but it’s tight budget times. So coming up with solutions to the budget crisis is a good thing to do.”

But Harcleroad says the governor’s Commission on Public Safety needs to consider not just dollars and cents. He says the group also needs to consider the impact on everyday people when it comes to keeping criminals behind bars.

Shannon Wight is with the Partnership for Safety and Justice. That group has called Measure 11 “misguided.” But Wight says she doesn’t think the panel will or should recommend completely throwing out the mandatory minimum sentencing law.

“I think there’s a long-term trajectory that this group is going to look at,” she says. “Where if we made tweaks to our sentencing scheme now, there are long-term savings down the road, and it’s time for Oregon to make those changes.”

Whatever changes the group recommends, the deadline to make up its mind is mid-December. That timeline makes Doug Harcleroad skeptical.

“They’re supposed to come up with comprehensive sentencing reform in five months,” he says. “That’s a big, big task.”

But the panel does have two big names leading it: Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul de Muniz and former Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski.

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