jump to navigation

Commission: Prison sentencing dictated by heart, not head December 30, 2011

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

A draft report by Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Commission on Public Safety says ballot measures instead of business principles have come to dominate prison sentencing in Oregon and that needs to change.

“Public safety demands a shift from using the heart to guide our investments to using rational business-like approaches,” according to the report, which is to be submitted to the governor on Friday.

The commission has been charged with examining long-term planning efforts on sentencing and public safety, specifically the felony sentencing system. It will require balancing the will of the voters, who have twice approved expensive mandatory minimum sentencing ballot measures, with scarce state dollars.

Costs have risen significantly in the prison system, what the report calls “Oregon’s most expensive resource.” The state Department of Corrections has been allotted $1.3 billion by the state general fund for the 2011-2013 budget, outpacing all other departments except schools and human services.

The report sets forth principles it hopes the Legislature adopts in the next biennium, including a greater reliance cost-benefit analysis when considering sentencing reforms and giving judges more discretion when they hand down sentences. The report contains few specific recommendations.

The commission is comprised of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, two Republican legislators, two Democratic state legislators, former Gov. Ted Kulongoski — a Democrat — and a Salem business executive.

Prison costs have ballooned in recent years due in part to mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, which have kept offenders in prison longer, and to higher health care costs for an aging prison population, the commission said.

Taxpayers spend on average more than $30,000 per year for each Oregon prisoner. The state Office of Economic Analysis released a prison forecast this year projecting that the number of prisoners will increase by 2,000 by the end of the decade, to nearly 16,000.

Prison costs have spiked since voters approved Measure 11 in 1994, which created mandatory minimum sentences for some violent crimes. Subsequent ballot measures —including one passed last year during the Great Recession — have added stiff sentences for other crimes and are forecast to cost the state more money.

In response to the draft report, the Oregon District Attorneys Association said the state’s sentencing policies are working, and said the commission’s focus solely on sentencing is an error.

“We believe that the Commission has missed the mark by focusing on only one aspect of the criminal justice system: sentencing,” according to the statement issued Thursday.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said the commission’s proposed guidelines could affect the length of time offenders serve in prison. Marquis said he wants to see offenders serve the sentences given them without reductions.

“The most important single value is truth in sentencing, not necessarily severity,” Marquis said.

When it comes to public safety in Oregon, perception is reality, the commission report said: Voters pass statewide ballot measures enforcing mandatory minimums, believing crime is on the rise. The opposite is true, the report argues. The crime rate has fallen in Oregon during the past 20 years and continues to fall.

Shannon Wright, associate director for the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said the commission rightly focused on alternatives to mandatory minimum sentences.

“It’s been almost two decades since Oregon began its experiment with mandatory minimums and they are a huge cost driver,” said Wright, whose group opposes mandatory minimum sentences.

The commission must balance its work with the will of the voters and the Legislature, which the report notes, but goes on to argue, “Neither the Legislature, nor the ballot initiative can adequately craft a ‘one size fits all’ sentence.”

“Appropriate sentencing law requires individual application,” the report says. “The new sentencing guidelines must empower the court by better distributing and structuring discretion between the executive and judicial branches of state government than does our current system.”



1. Cat B - January 1, 2012

Cutbacks are everywhere, amend Measure 11, cut it,
Or cuts times in half. Don’t cut are schools,
Or you will just have more people in prisons.
Stop shipping prisoners all over the place
Just to make more Federal money. There is
No more rehabilitation or schooling in prisons.
They need counseling and vocational training.
Otherwise they are going to go from prison
To SSI, SSD, because if they stay in prison
Too long they will never fit into society again.
Keep our children out of adult prisons. Try house arrest
For the last year several years of a prison
Sentence for older inmates 45 years or older.
So they can get work or work training and counseling.
If they are pushing 50 years old, they are less
Likely to re-offend, many have Grown up a lot
If they have been in their 4 years or more. The
Prisons are racist and it makes it much harder
For inmates to fit in to society and the
Workforce the longer they stay in there.