Now is the time for real sentencing reform

By Jennifer Williamson of Portland, Oregon. Jennifer is an attorney and public safety reform leader running in the Democratic primary for HD 36 in West Portland. For more information, visit

Over the last several weeks, Governor Kitzhaber’s Commission on Public Safety has received a lot of attention over the release of its report calling for a hard look at Oregon’s public safety system. I, along with many others, am pleased this issue is receiving this long over-due attention. For the last 3 years, a group of non-profit organizations, unions, and concerned Legislators and citizens have worked together as part of the Oregon Coalition for Safety & Savings (OCSS) to formulate policy alternatives to our one-size-fits-all incarceration system and the enormous impact it has had on every other segment of our state’s budget.

The OCSS is committed to supporting the most effective public safety policies so that our limited dollars are invested wisely. We are committed to keeping Oregonians safe and know that Oregon can do better when it comes to our spending on corrections.

The membership of the OCSS includes a wide range of individuals and organizations who understand the need to decrease our spending on prisons and reinvest those savings into education, human services, community corrections, victim services, mental health, and addiction treatment. Members of the Oregon Coalition for Safety and Savings include:

As one of the leaders of this powerful coalition, I have focused on sounding the alarm on the growing cost of corrections. I have worked with the group on drafting policy recommendations supported by evidence-based practices that will actually make Oregonians safer. OCSS is continually working to prevent so-called “solutions” that have proven ineffective and costly in other states. These failed approaches include balancing the budgets on the backs of Department of Corrections’ employees, allowing for dangerous overcrowding of facilities, and the privatization of correctional institutions.

Studies show that investing our limited dollars in education, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services, programs that stabilize families, and transition programs are better investments than continuing to over-incarcerate to the tune of $30,000 per inmate per year--almost as much as a year’s tuition at a private college.

As the Legislature reconvenes in February and searches for additional savings in the budget, I hope that Legislators will continue to work with the OCSS to find sound policy solutions, and save money. If they don’t, Oregon will continue on an unsustainable path to spending an additional $600 million on corrections. This staggering figure includes building 2 new prisons over the next 10 years and comes at a time when our crime rate is at a 40-year low and the Legislature is making damaging cuts to education, health care, and other vital services.

The agenda of the Oregon Coalition for Safety and Savings compliments the work that the Commission on Public Safety has been preparing for the 2013 legislative session. Between now and then, you’ll be hearing more from the Coalition and the Commission on what Oregon needs to do to make our public safety system even better. Oregon has a lot to be proud of when it comes to our public safety policies, but also a lot that needs to change. Max Williams, the recently retired director of Corrections knew it, and the Coalition and Commission do too.

Now is the time to make the public safety changes Oregon needs and we have the right leadership and coalition to make it happen.

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    While evidence based sentencing has been proven to reduce crime and recidivism, it's been a struggle for it's advocates to be heard over the voices of the crime victim groups and Oregon Prosecutors.

    Attorneys have no, or very limited, expertise in what terms in a sentence are most likely to enhance public safety. There are parts for attorneys to play in sentencing. Prosecutors need to represent the impact on the victims, and defense attorneys need to articulate the viewpoints of the defendant and point out the strengths the defendant has in becoming a better citizen.

    But if we want the safest communities possible, we need to be establish sentencing baselines and requirements that are evidence based. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys are qualified to make that determination.

    If the legislature and courts started listening to mental health and behavior specialists who had training and experience in corrections, we'd all be a lot safer.

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    Great piece, Jennifer! And fun to meet with you today.

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    Great post. Oregon's current corrections spending is unsustainable. We need to focus resources toward prevention and treatment, the lower cost more effective solutions...rather than lengthy prison sentences which are far more costly. We need more leaders like Williamson willing to step forward and speak up for common sense solutions that put Oregon on the right track for the future. Williamson is the kind of voice we need in the Oregon Legislature.

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    Is it possible to mobilize a wider circle of advocacy allies for this kind of reform? As Ms. Williamson points out, it's not just "unsustainable." There are huge opportunity costs to the current irrational policies. Every $million misdirected comes out of tattered human needs programs, many of them for the most vulnerable among us, as well as strained core budget areas like education.

    Thanks for being a voice of reason.

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    Thank goodness: a principled leader who is willing to spearhead a necessary and long-overdue conversation on sentencing reform. Thank you, Jennifer Williamson, for your intelligent post. And yes folks, unless Oregon's Legislature does something soon, this state will have to pump more-and-more resources into building more-and-more prison beds. There are better ways to promote public safety. Thank goodness there are thoughtful candidates like Ms. Williamson to lead the discussion.

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    I am very appreciative of the fact that folks like Jennifer Williamson have the guts to take a close look at what works best for Oregonians with respect to sentencing policy. The bottom line is that judges should be making sentencing decisions based on the input of defense counsel, prosecutors, victims and defendants, after considering evidence based practices. Mandatory minimums have proven to be costly, unfair and unnecessarily harsh in many many cases each year in Oregon. Thank you Ms. Williamson!

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    Working on domestic violence and sexual assault issues this past legislative session has opened my eyes to both the devastating effects of this violence in our communities. It has also shown me the potential for smart spending choices on public safety to change the lives - and in too many cases save the lives - of victims of domestic and sexual violence.

    The hard truth we’ve seen in recent years is that spending choices don’t occur in a vacuum. Inefficient spending on corrections translates into the lack of funds for the 23,000 victims of violence that were denied access to a shelter due to insufficient funds in 2010. And, due in part to inadequate services, over 100 Oregonians have lost their lives due to incidents of domestic violence since January of 2009 - about 10% of whom were kids.

    Domestic and Sexual Violence Victims Services provide real benefits to our communities: reducing homelessness; saving millions in emergency medical costs; increasing the effectiveness of substance abuse programs; helping child victims succeed in school; assisting adult victims in communities across Oregon to stay in their jobs; and contributing to the community’s economy rather than being forced to detract from it. Yet without an informed look at how we spend our public safety dollars, these programs lose out – putting people at risk and increasing costs over the long term.

    I applaud Jennifer for taking an active role in this coalition. It is an important signal to me that you recognize the impact of funding victims services. It's been a pleasure to work with you on this important safety and savings issue, Jennifer Williamson. Thanks for your commitment.

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    This is a very good cause an kudos to Jennifer for taking this on. It is about time someone tries to help educate the public on this. The sentencing needs to go back to the judge,an be based on the serverity of the individuals record. The Measure 11 does severe injustise to the indivual being sentenced.Since my son was sentenced to almost 6yrs,have I been alot more alert an the sentencing is so unfair. My son needed a wake up call but not 6yrs. People in central oregon have killed people an not recevied that much time if any.A top official in Madras said of one case,that a innocent person was killed,she made a mistake, have't u ever made a mistake. For the love of God, she killed someone.So far she is not in jail prison for it. PEOPLE wake up, the ones that can b reabilatate with out prison,let's try that out. I will help anyway I can from my home.We need to try to figure out ways to not over group the prisone system but I saw a show where this is big money for big business:( Sad Sad

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