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Budget Crisis Could Curtail Oregon’s Prison Boom May 28, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

With nearly 14,000 people locked up in state prisons and another 35,000 under supervision from the Department of Corrections, criminal justice has been one of Oregon’s most recession-proof industries.

The department’s budget has grown at a 20 percent clip each biennium since 1995, and every household in the state pays $1,414 every two years to fund corrections.

But with a $4 billion state budget shortfall, legislators have tough choices to make about crime and punishment. If any real reform is to be made, however, it must pass one giant hurdle: Voter-passed initiatives.

In 1994, the public approved a measure that mandated much longer sentences for 16 crimes. That in turn drove the number of inmates in the state much higher, while keeping them there longer.

Lawmakers face either overhauling the criminal justice system or continuing down the same path, watching corrections eat up more and more revenue.

While the state’s prison population has grown to nearly 14,000 people, crime has plummeted in every category. Criminal justice advocates say Oregon’s model is a success, but researchers and data from here and across the nation show something different: Only a small percentage of the drop in crime can be attributed to more prisons and longer sentences.

In Salem these days, the criminal justice debates under way are philosophical: Should the state simply let large numbers of inmates walk free to balance the budget in the short term or retool the way Oregon manages corrections?

Some legislators and even the head of the Department of Corrections, a former Republican legislator, are quietly pushing for a new approach to criminal justice — one that allows for a range of sanctions for lawbreakers so fewer people end up in prison.

"This is a structural nightmare. This is the box the Legislature is in," said Max Williams, director of Oregon’s Department of Corrections. "If we can’t change the size of the box, we are going to be stuck."

Ballot-box mandates

When Oregon voters handcuffed the Legislature in 1994 with Measure 11, they imposed long mandatory prison terms for 16 violent and sex-related offenses, required juveniles be prosecuted as adults for those crimes, and prohibited any earned time credit for anyone who received a Measure 11 sentence. At the same time, voters changed the state constitution to prevent lawmakers from tampering with sentences.




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