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Prison costs shackling Oregon April 23, 2007

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Oregon is on the verge of a milestone: In the next two years, the state will spend tens of millions more tax money to lock up prison inmates than it does to educate students at community colleges and state universities.

The trend results from more than a decade of explosive prison growth largely fueled by Measure 11, the 1994 ballot initiative that mandated lengthy sentences for violent crimes. Since then, the number of inmates has nearly doubled and spending on prisons has nearly tripled.

As legislators and the governor debate how much money to spend on schools and higher education, there is little discussion in Salem on spiraling prison costs.

Oregon taxpayers now spend roughly the same money to incarcerate 13,401 inmates as they do to educate 438,000 university and community college students. But spending on prisons is growing at a faster rate than education and other state services.

The Department of Corrections and Oregon Youth Authority budget is projected to grow 19 percent in the next two years, to $1.66 billion, under Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s budget — $174 million more than what Kulongoski proposes to spend on universities and colleges.

University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer has warned lawmakers of a “growing crisis in Oregon and nationally at the intersection of corrections systems and other public priorities.”

That’s because the state budget essentially is a zero-sum game. Education, human services and public safety, including the Department of Corrections, account for 93 percent of state spending. Without tax increases, money that goes to one of those isn’t available for the others.

Why do prison costs soar beyond population growth? Since June 1995 after Measure 11 took effect, the prison population has grown from 7,539 to 13,401 inmates, including 5,387 Measure 11 offenders.

To keep them locked up, the state has built three prisons and expanded five others the past decade. Another new prison — Oregon’s 14th — opens this fall. A 15th prison, probably in Medford, would open in 2012.

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