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Oregon prison law in budget lockdown February 16, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

On Election Day, legislators cut a deal with Oregon voters.

They asked voters to approve Measure 57, increasing prison time for repeat property and drug criminals and attacking the cause of much of that crime with drug and alcohol treatment for offenders.

Voters approved the measure in November and rejected a more expensive and severe alternative. But now the Legislature — mired in a deepening recession that has slashed state revenues — doesn’t have the money to keep its part of the bargain.

The harsh new economic landscape is reflected in Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s proposed 2009-11 budget, which provides for only half the estimated cost of implementing Measure 57, including about $20 million of the $40 million that was promised for drug and alcohol treatment programs.

The budget gap is causing angst among legislative leaders who promoted Measure 57 as a better proposal than Measure 61 and prompting criticism from the chief sponsor of that rejected initiative.

"If they give short shrift to treatment, I think they have seriously violated the trust of the voters," says Salem attorney and former legislator Kevin Mannix. "The strongest argument they had was that 57 had a treatment component and 61 did not. They’ve got to keep that promise, and that costs money."

The $20 million for treatment "was what we thought was absolutely the best we could do" in the face of a mammoth shortfall that grows worse every month, says Joe O’Leary, Kulongoski’s chief public safety adviser.

"The ground is still moving beneath it, and we don’t know when it’s going to end," O’Leary said.

Measure 57 took effect Jan. 1, and the first inmate sentenced under its terms, a 20-year-old man who pleaded guilty to a charge of burglary in Linn County, entered the prison system Jan. 29. State prosecutors expect the number of Measure 57 sentences to pick up in the spring, probably around April.

The state projects that more than 1,400 Measure 57 inmates will enter the prison system between now and June 2011, the end of the next budget cycle.

To house them, corrections officials have put together a patchwork plan that relies heavily on the use of temporary beds at 11 institutions across the state. The beds will go into existing prison housing units, classroom space now used for education and training, health care facilities, even an area at one prison that visitors use for "televisiting" with inmates.

"People don’t like to use the word ‘crowding,’ but that essentially is what it is," says Nathan Allen, the Department of Corrections’ planning and budget administrator.

Many of the temporary beds will be placed in minimum-security prisons, which Allen said is not ideal because the minimum-security facilities are where most inmates go on their way out of the prison system, not as they enter. But the minimum-security prisons are the least expensive to operate.

Complicating the department’s planning, state officials last week announced a list of potential spending cuts to close a projected $800 million gap for the next five months. The options included closing eight minimum-security prisons.

It could have been worse. The cost of fully implementing Measure 57 between now and June 2011 was estimated at $162 million. Estimates for implementing Mannix’s Measure 61 ranged from $197 million to $276 million.




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