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New Oregon commission tackles spiraling prison costs, misconceptions about crime October 29, 2011

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Once again, convicted thief Dean J. Sanders is costing taxpayers $30,000 a year.


He’s back in prison, where he’ll live at public expense for as long as 28 more years. The 40-year-old Eugene mechanic landed in a cell this month after he was caught selling parts from stolen cars.


With that, he also landed at the center of one of Oregon’s most daunting challenges: how to balance public safety against public expense. State officials say people like Sanders are draining government budgets at a pace that can’t be sustained. Already, Oregon’s public safety system — police, prosecutors, prisons — consumes more than $6 billion a year.


Now a seven-member Commission on Public Safety appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber is tackling the problem. The commission began work in August and must report back to Kitzhaber by Dec. 15.


Oregonians have much at stake.


Prison spending alone has soaked up ever more state money, hitting $1.3 billion out of the state’s $13.6 billion two-year general fund budget and squeezing everything from spending on adult foster care to children’s health. The cost has grown even as crime rates have declined — yet more growth is on the horizon.


The state Corrections Department projects that it will need an additional $600 million over the next 10 years to house 2,000 more inmates, an estimate that comes as the Legislature prepares to convene Feb. 1 for another round of cuts to state programs.


Finding ways to control prison costs is the core mission of the new commission, following the lead of states from coast to coast. Challenges include opposition from prosecutors and the public to lighter sentences, widespread misconceptions that crime is rising, and even squabbles over the accuracy of inmate projections and the rate that convicts return to prison.


Supreme Court Justice Paul DeMuniz, chairman of the new commission, said the biggest challenge could be changing public opinion.


“We need to address the disconnect between the large drop in crime and the public perception that they’re not safer,” DeMuniz said. “We need to explore reasons Oregonians do not feel safe.”


Texas finds success

The Commission on Public Safety is poking into all corners of Oregon’s criminal justice system — juvenile crime, mental health, drug and alcohol addictions, parole and probation, and the prison sentences blamed for a run-up in an inmate population that stands at 14,000.


It’s also turning to national experts and other states that have embraced “justice reinvestment,” the idea that public money does more good when spent on prevention and rehabilitation than on building prisons to hold more inmates for longer terms.


Experts say research now shows what’s effective at preventing crime and rehabilitating criminals, a switch from years of “program of the month” trial and error. Criminal justice professionals are more skilled at sorting criminals by risk, with more confidence in their ability to predict which offenders can be supervised outside a cell.


“We know what will make us safer,” DeMuniz said.


Reform supporters also have a powerful example of success: Texas, a state never known for coddling criminals.

In 2007, legislators faced $500 million in additional prison costs in their next budget in anticipation of 17,000 more inmates in five years. Led by Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden, they instead poured $241 million into community programs to head off criminal behavior and tighten supervision of parolees.

The effort paid off. An inmate population of 155,319 in August 2007 had reached only 156,382 by Sept. 30 of this year. Texas this year closed a prison — a first for the state.


The key, Madden said, was giving conservative and liberal legislators alike something to support. For conservatives, that turned out to be leaner government operations — more results at less cost. For liberals, that meant focusing more on rehabilitation such as drug treatment than retribution.


“We were still being tough on those who we needed to be tough with but making the best utilization of the criminal justice system,” said Madden, who recently shared his insights with the Oregon commission.


Oklahoma, meanwhile, has the country’s highest incarceration rate for women and ranks third for men.


“We all run on the platform of being tough on crime,” said Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican. “If you’re going to be tough on crime, the solution is to lock everyone up.”


But, Steele said, the state could no longer afford to do that. This summer, leaders started their own hunt for reforms and are now preparing to travel the state to raise public awareness.


Shrinking state budgets are forcing such conversations — and creating unusual alliances.


“For the first time in a long time, you’re seeing the appetite for fiscal conservatism matching up with the appetite for socially progressive approaches to justice,” said Robert Coombs, senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. In Ohio and North Carolina, he said, Democrats launched reform efforts, but Republicans kept them going.


“Soft on crime” card

Still, Oregon’s work is not without debate. The Oregon District Attorneys Association, for one, disputes the inmate forecast and doesn’t want it used to dilute prison terms that prosecutors say are a key reason crime rates have dropped.


Officials also argue over recidivism rates — the percentage of inmates convicted of new crimes within three years of their release. The Corrections Department calculates that 28 percent of convicts reoffend, but prosecutors say the number counts only felonies, offering an incomplete measure of how well prison and parole programs work.


Another big challenge will be convincing residents that they aren’t as threatened as they think. Portland State University researchers last year found that more than half the Oregonians they surveyed thought crime rates were on the rise.


FBI statistics show otherwise. From 1990 to 2010, violent crime rates dropped from five per 1,000 residents to 2.5, and property crime rates fell from 51 per 1,000 residents to 30 — both the lowest in more than 40 years.


“The public perception is what drives the political side of the equation,” Kitzhaber said. “It’s easy to play the ‘soft on crime’ card. I don’t underestimate the challenge of changing that paradigm.”


Offenders such as Sanders and Delandre M. Ingram don’t help.


Sanders first went to prison in 2008, sentenced for 28 crimes ranging from auto theft to burglary. He served 22 months, returning to Lane County in early 2010. Before long, he was taking drugs and running a “chop shop” outside Junction City, parting stolen cars with a backhoe and burying the scraps.


Police pinned him for 15 cars, including one stolen the morning of their raid last May. Sanders was convicted at trial and began a 28-year sentence Oct. 6.


Ingram, 43, went to prison for the third time in 2004 after robbing a check-cashing store. He got out in early 2010 and convinced his parole officer that he had forsaken crime. He hadn’t.


Five months after his release, Ingram and a partner came up behind a woman locking an east Portland check-cashing store for the night. They forced her inside at gunpoint and took several thousand dollars. Ingram then robbed another check-cashing store, clubbing a woman employee with his pistol.


He pleaded guilty last April, accepting 11 1/2 years in prison.


Kitzhaber said that keeping others from the same path will require reforms as dramatic as those crafted for education and health care. Others agree.


“If we simply maintain current practices, the resulting trajectory of our costs is unsustainable,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, a commission member. “We must identify and promote wise choices.”



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