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Rethinking the costs of Measure 11 March 13, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

The state of Oregon is in financial trouble. State economists are predicting a $3 billion budget shortfall in 2009-2011, resulting in less for schools, health care and public safety.

How did we get in this mess? Obviously there are national economic problems, but Oregon is in particular trouble. One major reason seems to be Measure 11, the mandatory sentencing law that sends so many of our citizens to prison for long periods.

When someone enters prison, Oregon pays twice. First, it costs approximately $25,000 per year to incarcerate an individual. Second, that person is not working and paying taxes that the state could use to finance other services. That person is also not paying child support or providing emotional or financial support to his or her family, so imprisoning an individual for misdeeds has a price the entire community pays.

Currently in Oregon we have about 14,000 inmates in 14 prisons run by the Department of Corrections. This does not count people incarcerated in the various county jails throughout the state.

In Oregon, the "tough on crime" movement — fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s — resulted in Measure 11, which voters passed in 1994. This measure imposed mandatory sentences for various crimes. No one convicted under Measure 11 receives time off for good behavior in prison.

Shortly after Measure 11 was passed, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber commented, "School districts will cut hundreds of teachers but we will be hiring a thousand new prison guards. So we won’t be teaching your kids, but we will be guarding them well." We are now watching his prediction come true.

Measure 11 was passed in the hope that it would improve public safety, but this has not proved to be the case. Although crime rates went down in Oregon, they also went down in states without mandatory sentencing. Obviously, factors other than long prison sentences are affecting crime rates. Recent research from the Pew Center indicates that the "tough on crime" movement has incurred huge costs without improving public safety.

Now we are stuck with a system that does not provide safety and is causing enormous financial problems. How do we change what we are doing?

The Oregon Legislature can change or revoke Measure 11 with a two-thirds vote in each chamber. For a legislator to vote for this will take courage and conviction because some anti-crime organizations in our state fan the flame of fear that public safety will suffer if long mandatory sentences are abolished, despite all available research showing this rhetoric is mistaken.

Perhaps the most reasonable starting place would be a modification of the measure. If individuals who are sentenced under Measure 11 could earn time off for good behavior, we would save significant amounts of money. If offenders were released even a year early, we would save millions in incarceration costs alone. This is a significant sum that could well be used for other services in our state.

We need to recognize that Measure 11 is not giving us the results that we want, and we need to modify it accordingly. As Gov. Ted Kulongoski pointed out before announcing his budget, "Now it’s a choice between building prisons, and health care and schools."



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