Smarter Investments in Corrections

Evan Manvel

Rep. Garrett: "Oregon is a safe place. It can be even safer, at a lower cost, than it is today."

Smarter Investments in Corrections

This week saw opinion pieces published about the need to reform our approach to criminals in Oregon – one by the Coos Bay World editorial board, and one by Rep. Chris Garrett in the Lake Oswego Review. They’re in response to the report from the Gov. Kitzhaber’s Commission on Public Safety (which Garrett sits on), and are eye-opening.

From The World:

Oregon spends more on prisons than it does on any other department except schools and human services. Judges say some of the cost is being spent on inmates who, in their view, simply don't belong in prison.

While voters' crime-fighting goal was well-intentioned, the state's analysis shows a disconnect between politics and reality. The state's crime rate continues to go down, yet Measure 11 keeps the prison population growing.

At a time when every prisoner costs taxpayers more than $30,000 per year, it makes sense to let judges be judges again.

From Rep. Garrett:

Oregon is on an unsustainable path. Under policies now in place, it is projected that Oregon will have to spend $600 million over the next 10 years to build 2,000 new prison beds. Many of these beds will be used to house people who have committed non-violent offenses and are at low risk to re-offend, compared to those now in prison. The public and policymakers alike question the wisdom of spending $600 million that we don’t have, to imprison more people at a time when crime rates are at a record low, while the economic downturn is forcing us to slash budgets for education and other critical services.

Oregon can find less expensive approaches than building new prisons to keep crime rates low. For example, we know beyond any doubt that the vast majority of non-violent property crime has its roots in substance abuse. Spending more on proven treatment programs is a better and cheaper technique than incarceration for dealing with those offenders and preventing future crime.

By making smarter use of our tax dollars on low-risk offenders, we will ensure that we continue to have the resources we need to keep the dangerous offenders in prison. Oregon is a safe place. It can be even safer, at a lower cost, than it is today.

The Commission's report is short, and can be read in its entirety in less than 15 minutes. A key chart is above, comparing changes in incarceration, violent crime, and property crime rates of Oregon (blue), New York (red), and California (Green) from 1995 to 2010. As the report states, “States are reducing crime without increasing incarceration.” It talks about how Texas is one of the leaders in prison reform.

The thrust of the recommendations is to revise sentencing guidelines, including investment in proven programs to reduce substance abuse, using cost-benefit analysis, allowing judges discretion, adjusting sentencing based on the offender, investing in juvenile justice, increasing crime victim services, and assisting with offender re-entry (which currently only takes up 2.5% of the Department of Corrections’ budget).

The report is a great start to increasing the benefits we get from the billions of Oregon's tax dollars we spend on corrections. The Commission is asking to be kept together through July of 2013, and for Oregon to apply for federal funding to help revise how we approach crime in Oregon. Kudos to the representatives, senators, and judges who've been a part of it, and to The World and Rep. Garrett for pushing for reform.

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    Evan, thanks for posting this. And thanks to Rep. Garrett for his article. If we can't control or reduce the costs of the prison / correction system, then we will not have funds for other, higher priorities. It's a very important issue.

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    Does progressive change in corrections and prison building require the over-turning of Measure 11? If so, is that politically doable?

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      A 2/3rd vote of both houses is necessary to reduce or eliminate a mandatory minimum sentence under Measure 11. On the other hand, a simple majority vote is needed to change the definition of a crime to take it out of Measure 11 territory. The legislature can actually whittle away selectively at measure 11 seeking cost savings until there's little or nothing left of it. And small changes (reducing the mandatory minimum for first degree manslaughter from 120 months to 100 months, for example) probably wouldn't trigger enough passion from the dumb-on-crime lobby to refer the law to the ballot, particularly if they were consulted and kept involved throughout the process.

      I'm also not sure that "imprisonment" needs to be in a state facility as opposed to, say, your family home while being monitored by a GPS anklet and some webcams. Under state law, a "correctional facility" is "any place used for the confinement of persons charged with or convicted of a crime or otherwise confined under a court order." (Oregon Revised States 131.005). I haven't researched this, but on its face, I see no reason "family home" couldn't qualify as a "correctional facility" under Oregon law and why "house arrest" couldn't qualify as "imprisonment" for Measure 11 purposes. (This assumes, of course, that the inmate can be trusted to stay home, and has one or more non-abusive family members able and willing to take care of them ... that won't always be the case.)

      So I figure there are plenty of ways to blunt the fiscal drain of Measure 11 without needing to flat-out overturn it.

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