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Prison early release challenged April 16, 2007

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Repeat property offenders would stay in prison longer under changes presented to lawmakers, but those stays would be shortened if inmates complete drug treatment and community leave.

Lawmakers also are considering limits to the alternative incarceration program, which, critics say, is resulting in greater reductions in prison time for some inmates than the Legislature intended.

The package of changes may win support from two advocacy groups usually on opposite sides — Crime Victims United, and the Partnership for Safety and Justice — although representatives of both told the House Judiciary Committee last week they still have reservations and want to see more changes.

State Rep. Kim Thatcher called attention to the program a couple of months ago by sponsoring a series of bills to limit it.

“It’s probably come to the most realistic point that I can expect from this Legislature,” said Thatcher, a Republican from Keizer. “It’s not everything I want, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

The changes negotiated by the governor’s staff, the Oregon Department of Corrections, district attorneys and others would impose some limits similar to those Thatcher proposed.

Inmates who fail the program would be ineligible for re-entry. Sex offenders and some inmates whose crimes resulted in death or serious physical injury also would be ineligible.

Offenders would have to serve at least 12 months of the term imposed, and have no more than 24 months remaining on that term.

These and other changes would be coupled with extending sentences for those who commit multiple property crimes. Some terms would be lengthened from 13 to 18 months, and for first-degree burglary and aggravated theft, from 19 to 27 months.

“I think this compromise is a very delicate balance,” said John Foote, the Clackamas County district attorney, who sat on the group that negotiated it. “If you pick off pieces, it will fall apart.”

The package’s price tag has not been estimated, but longer prison stays and more drug treatment are likely to cost millions.

“But we think the money should follow the policy,” said Max Williams, director of the Department of Corrections.

Four years ago, the Legislature authorized a program aimed at reducing the return rate of offenders to prisons. The law presumed that judges’ sentencing orders allow inmates to take part in the program unless a judge forbids it in open court.

Participating prisons are the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, the Summit boot camp in North Bend, and the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City. The boot camp, the state’s first alternative program, actually began operation in 1994.

Inmates must complete 180 days of intensive treatment for alcohol and drug abuse in secure custody, and 90 days of transitional leave in the community, before they qualify for sentence reductions and early release. The average reduction is 12 to 13 months.

If inmates fail either phase, they remain in prison or are returned to prison from transitional leave.

Preliminary numbers released by the state last summer pegged the completion rate at just under 42 percent of the 2,700 inmates enrolled, although another 6 percent were still on leave at the time.

Critics raised questions about high-profile offenders, some of whom were not only released earlier than their sentences called for but committed new crimes. One was Juan Lara, a former Eugene police officer who was sentenced in 2004 to 68 months in prison in connection with coercing two women to provide sexual favors while on duty. He served 27 months.

“In some rare instances, individuals were getting probably a greater reduction in sentences than anybody envisioned,” said Williams, who was the House Judiciary Committee chairman when the 2003 Legislature approved the program.

“There also were certain crimes that made sense for us to prohibit some inmates from participating in this program, and we agreed.”

Inmates convicted under Measure 11, which voters approved in 1994 to impose mandatory minimum sentences for 21 violent crimes, are ineligible for the program. But non-Measure 11 felons make up about 70 percent of Oregon’s 13,000 inmates.

“If we are not preparing them for re-entry into society, we are doing a disservice to the people,” said Joseph O’Leary, Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s senior policy adviser for public safety.

Crime Victims United, which takes a hard line against crime, said it is skeptical of the program.

“These amendments, though not exactly what we desired, represent a step in the right direction,” said Howard Rodstein, a policy adviser for the group. “That’s why we are supporting them.”

Thatcher said she is seeking an amendment to provide for performance measures and an independent audit.

The Partnership for Safety and Justice supports a six-month extension of stays for repeat property offenders. But it also said more emphasis must go to programs that reduce the return rate of offenders.

Geoff Sugerman, who spoke for the group, said less than 1 percent of the prisons’ two-year, $1.1-billion budget is spent on those programs, compared with more than 10 percent on debt service for prisons already built.

“Today, over half of the people in the corrections system do not receive needed and recommended drug treatment, cognitive behavior training, or education, all vital components for them to succeed when they are released,” he said.

“By increasing the number of treatment beds under this proposal, we begin to take the first steps back to a more balanced criminal-justice system.”

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