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Church leaders say more prisons not the answer October 21, 2008

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

After voters approved Measure 11 in 1994, many people felt the imposition of mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent criminals was discriminatory or ineffective. Now two more measures to increase prison terms for other crimes will appear on the November ballot.

Along with the enormous cost to build prisons, Measures 57 and 61 are bringing some of the same objections over fairness versus the need to bring justice to victims and enhance public safety.

Worried about citizen-proposed Measure 61’s affects on the community, the legislature came up with Measure 57, which supposedly only incarcerates repeat offenders, incarcerates fewer women and includes a fund for addiction treatment.

However, Rev. Leroy Haynes, vice president of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, says the group of black church leaders is against both measures.

“We are thankful for the Legislature’s attempt to offset [Measure 61] in terms of the rehab and everything, but we do not believe that the solution is more prisons, when we are already straddled with high taxes,” Haynes said.

“We must get to the root cause of crime, which is economic: illiteracy, the lack of education and job opportunities. Instead of putting the money into prisons, we should put it in education and creating job opportunities,” he said.

Haynes believes discretion on sentences should be in the hands of the judges, who must be allowed to determine the need for rehabilitation as well as the presence of any mitigating factors.

Since mandatory-sentencing laws such as Measure 11 became more common in the mid-1980s, prison populations have boomed, though crime levels have not declined with the same intensity.

In the U.S., more than 2.3 million, or one in 100 adults, are in jail, and since 91 percent of those are in local or state prisons, it costs state governments more than $50 billion annually.

Oregon’s prison population increased by 80 percent after the passage of Measure 11, and now Oregon is one of five states that spend as much or more on prisons than it does on higher education.

It is also well-known that our corrections system is racially biased.

Families against Mandatory Minimums reports that African Americans account for 13 percent of the general population, yet in 2003 they comprised 27 percent of those receiving federal mandatory drug sentences. Hispanics constituted 12.5 percent of the general population but received 43 percent of the drug mandatory sentences.

In a city such as Portland, with documented racial-profiling problems, it is likely that the additional mandatory-sentencing laws would only further the imbalance.

Measures 57 and 61 add length to existing sentences and add new (nonviolent) crimes to the list, so will tax the system further.

As females are more likely to commit the nonviolent crimes to be added to the mandatory-sentencing list, these measures will also impact the state’s foster care system-and the prison system again down the road, as research shows that children of incarcerated women are five times as likely to be incarcerated as their peers.

The children of drug offenders would benefit much more from their mothers’ receiving drug counseling than they would having their mothers imprisoned, argue opponents of the measures.

Karen Nibler of the League of Women Voters of Oregon says they favor Measure 57 because of its drug treatment program and lower cost.

Nibler says Measure 61 “would add 4,000 to 6,000 non-violent inmates to the prison system by 2012.

“It would require millions of dollars in added prison operation costs and take funds from other state programs,” she said. “It would not require substance abuse treatment and does not estimate the costs of additional prison construction.”

Studies show that lowering unemployment rates and increasing wages and numbers of law-enforcement officers affect crime rates much more than incarceration does. When it comes to non-violent criminals, systems such as electronic monitoring, community supervision and mandatory drug counseling have also been proven cheaper and more effective.

Alternative punishments also enable inmates to return to their communities sooner and make contributions such as taxes and child-support payments.

Measures 57 and 61 both eliminate the possibility of using cheaper, better systems to rehabilitate criminals, and do not provide a way to pay for the imprisonment of more people.

The measures are estimated to cost between $411 million to $797 million in prison operations over the next four years, plus another $314 million to $1.3 billion dollars in prison construction debt.

Opponents say the money would do nothing to correct racial bias in the justice system, fix broken families or lower long-term crime rates, but instead add to pre-existing problems.

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