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Head off the prison boom October 14, 2011

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

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.



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