Oregon prison puzzle: Cut costs but keep public safe October 29, 2012Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback
For months, 12 Oregonians have been wrestling with the mathematics of justice in Oregon — who’s going to prison, who’s falling off probation, what percentage of new inmates are “low risk” or “nonviolent.”
One number matters most: $600 million.
That’s the estimated cost to taxpayers of continued growth in Oregon’s prison population. Avoiding that means sending fewer people to prison. So how does the state contain costs yet keep citizens safer?
That’s the vexing puzzle that’s been handed to the state Commission on Public Safety. Members face a year-end deadline to offer detailed reforms to Gov. John Kitzhaber. What they come up with could affect everything from Measure 11 to marijuana sentences.
State forecasters say a growing population and tougher sentencing measures will add 2,300 people to Oregon’s inmate count in the next decade. Changing that, the data suggest, will require backing off on sentences, sparing more people from prison, and spending more to keep offenders from committing new crimes.
Commissioners have been tutored on the mind-numbing data of criminal justice.
- Oregon’s prison population is growing even as the national trend is to cut prison intakes.
- An increasing percentage of felons are sent to prison for nonviolent crimes.
- And, surprisingly, nearly half of those entering prison last year fouled up while already on probation or parole.
In short: Oregon’s approach to punishment doesn’t work as well as it could.
“I’m a lock-em-up-and-throw-the-key-away guy, but when you start peeling the onion, that’s not the answer,” said Dick Withnell, a commissioner and Salem auto dealership owner.
With data-crunching behind, commissioners are now framing reforms for Kitzhaber and the 2013 Legislature to consider. But math still will drive the work. Commissioners want a clear sense of how many prison beds would be spared with each change they propose.
“And if by chance we save some money, those dollars have got to stay within the criminal justice arena,” said state Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, a commissioner.
Several commissioners said prison savings and more safety can be achieved by better monitoring felons on probation.
In 2011, judges sent 534 probationers to prison for “technical violations.” Roughly half failed to follow rules such as staying away from drugs. The other half committed new crimes that by themselves wouldn’t net prison time.
Supreme Court Justice Paul DeMuniz, chairman of the commission, said supervising a probationer costs the state $12 a day. Prison costs $85.