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Oregon needs more classrooms, not more cells October 22, 2008

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Here’s another editorial from the Oregonian:

Both ballot measures on crime are deeply flawed, direly foolish and deserve to fail

Crime is a major problem in our state. And criminals — lots of them — must be punished. Government’s first responsibility remains to protect its citizens.

Government’s second responsibility is to be smart about that process.

More than 13,000 people are in prison in Oregon. Kevin Mannix put one in every three of them behind bars.

Many of these Measure 11 felons — like more than 60 percent of all those arrested in America — are abusers of drugs or alcohol. Because of the almost total lack of treatment they receive on the inside, after release they will commit more crimes. But Mannix, the father of that 1994 measure under which Oregon’s prison population has increased more than 80 percent, doesn’t seem to mind one bit. That’s because he’s not picking up the tab.

You are.

And now Mannix is back for more.

The lawyer and former state legislator is the author this year of Ballot Measure 61, a craven assault on your fears. It calls for mandatory minimum sentences for first-time burglars, identification thieves and drug dealers. Corrections officials say that, if passed, the measure might cost as much as $800 million to operate over the next five years, and more than $1.3 billion in prison construction.

Mannix insists there are less costly alternatives to new prisons, such as work camps. That indeed might reduce capital costs, but not nearly as much as Mannix expects. According to Max Williams, director of Oregon’s Corrections Department, inmates with mental health and behavioral problems can’t qualify for work crews. As for operating costs, Williams says work crews actually demand even higher ratios of staff to inmates.

Because many of the property crimes targeted by Measure 61 are committed by women — in identify theft cases they make up 44 percent of the convictions — Mannix would make Oregon the state with the nation’s highest percentage of female prisoners. That surely would mean far more children shoveled into Oregon’s woeful foster care system, which too often serves as a de facto holding tank for the next generation of criminals.

The impact all this would have on the state’s ability to provide basic services is so great that the Legislature felt compelled to craft an alternative.

Measure 57 is another awfully blunt instrument with which to try to craft a justice policy. But at least it targets repeat rather than first offenders and provides some drug treatment. It’s estimated to cost $411 million over five years, and to require the state to borrow $314 million for prison construction.

If both measures pass, the one with the most votes becomes law.

In Oregon, 80 percent of the crime is committed by 20 percent of the criminals. And here’s the funny part. Virtually none of them are college graduates. How we wish that someone with Mannix’s charm, passion and moxie might commit to selling Oregonians on the idea that what we need are more classrooms, not more cells.

Let us be clear. We think both these measures are dumb. They are ill-conceived, poorly crafted and offer wildly expensive answers to the wrong questions. Still, any voter feeling compelled to vote for one of them clearly must choose Measure 57. It’s half as dumb, and half as expensive. In the present political climate, that may be the best for which we can hope.

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