Guest ColumnFor The Daily Astorian
A recent editorial claimed that "Incarceration is an Oregonian's only entitlement" and went on say that "convicted criminals will get immediate seating in fully-funded accommodations," and that these luxuries all come at the cost of Oregon - our children's - education.
Let's look at the facts, once again.
Oregonians spend about 57 cents of every state tax dollar on education and about 7 cents on prisons and probation.
Oregon incarcerates its criminals at a rate far lower than most states. The average sentence served is just over three years for serious felonies, and about 75 percent of con'victed felons aren't given any prison sentence at all. That rate has actually decreased over the last 18 years, contrary to the conventional wisdom. The sentence in Clatsop County for a third-time drunk driver is usually 30 days or less in jail.
Anyone who thinks Clatsop County is sending the wrong people to jail or to prison is invited to come to the Clatsop County Courthouse for what we call "one-fifteens." Since neither the county, which runs the jail, nor the state, which funds the court, can afford a release officer, it is at 1:15 p.m. every day that I appear in court and recommend the judge release people with lengthy felony records because I know there are only 60 available beds and they must go to the worst of the worst. County taxpayers have spent tens of thousands of dollars on studies that tell us we need at least twice that jail space, and yet ...
During the campaign for the third judgeship two years ago, one of the (unelected) candidates claimed that "the wrong people are in jail. I'd asked him to identify a single person in the Clatsop County jail who did not belong there. He couldn't, even upon reflection. Anyone: Examine any of the 40 people Clatsop County sent to state prison in 2003 and make a case that the person doesn't belong there.
Judge Phil Nelson's drug court does not work without an empty jail bed as the last resort for someone who refuses to work the court's plan. The woman who is beaten by her boyfriend needs the protection of a jail bed to keep him away from her.
Our judges are not jailing the wrong people. They are not sending the wrong people to prison. Our choice is not jail or treatment, it's often jail and treatment. Unfortunately there is not enough of either available in either Clatsop County or the state of Oregon.
I am never going to run out of customers. I'd like to have fewer of them, because that would mean fewer people are robbed, beaten, maimed or killed by drunk drivers, raped or murdered. But we do not live in a prison state that denies children what they need in order to lock up those who would prey on them.
We need adequate funds at both ends of the system. We shouldn't short educational needs, neither should we short programs and facilities that prevent crime. It is a false economy that seeks to deny the necessity of holding those few members of the community who victimize the overwhelming majority of law-abiding citizens.
In this time of economic distress it is all the more important that your tax dollars are wisely spent. Let's not get drawn into the "guns or butter" argument that leaves us both hungry and defenseless.
Related story from Willamette Week
issue #35.23, published April 15, 2009
Crime and punishment—and how state budget problems may bring huge changes in both.
REP. CHIP SHIELDS (LEFT)
CLATSOP COUNTY DA JOSH MARQUIS (RIGHT)
Those advocates for judicial reform are pitted against the state’s district attorneys in a high-stakes debate on how best to cut the state’s $1.6 billion biennial prison bill.
At the same time the state is considering releasing potentially thousands of prisoners, advocates are using the budget maw to push a rewrite of some of the controversial minimum sentences set when state voters passed Measure 11 in 1994.
With each prisoner costing the state $78 a day, sentencing reforms that in past years have died a quiet death in Salem now have new life. At the center of that revival is Rep. Chip Shields (D-North Portland), a point man on public safety in the House Ways and Means Committee.
Before he was elected to the Oregon House in 2004, Shields worked as a volunteer to pass Measure 94, a failed effort in 2000 to overturn Measure 11.
Now he’s leading the effort in Salem to reshape the state’s strategy on fighting crime—one he and others say puts too much emphasis on incarceration.
Along with such allies as Sen. Jackie Dingfelder (D-Northeast Portland) and Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Northwest Portland), Shields is fighting to gut Measure 11 from the inside out. And the need for massive prison cuts has provided a rare opportunity.
“The budget crisis forces us to get serious about solutions,” Shields says. “It has definitely forced us to deal with this in the short term. The question is if we will also have the courage to balance things out in the long term.”
That’s where the Oregon District Attorneys Association comes in.
Given the state’s dire budget projections, the DAs reluctantly agree with the need to release prisoners. The issue is who should get out.
Asked to cut up to 30 percent of its budget, the Oregon Department of Corrections has floated a plan to close 10 of the state’s 14 prisons and free 4,100 of 13,800 inmates. In the end, the Legislature and Gov. Ted Kulongoski will decide how many people get released, and who they are.
The DAs resist freeing violent criminals sentenced under Measure 11. But Shields and his allies say some Measure 11 convicts should get consideration.
As the DAs are quick to point out, releasing prisoners will probably mean an uptick in crime. But their opponents say that won’t necessarily happen, and that investing in treatment and community corrections can help any increase.
The larger fight is over Measure 11 sentences—the DAs are adamant they shouldn’t be changed just to save money. Faced with the need to reduce prison populations, they prefer to do so by releasing prisoners early out the back door now, rather than admitting fewer through the front gate in the future.
“Let’s stick with a one-time event for what hopefully is a one-time problem, rather than an unprecedented change in our sentencing structure that will be very hard to reverse,” says Kevin Neely, lobbyist for the district attorneys association.
It’s a battle the DAs aren’t used to waging—in the past, almost any attempt to change Measure 11 that they didn’t support was dead on arrival in Salem. With Democrats enjoying large majorities in the House and Senate, that’s no longer the case.
The DAs are using the debate to correct what they call a widespread myth: that all Measure 11 sentences are mandatory. In fact, due to past reforms in the Legislature, judges often have leeway in sentencing and can even give probation in some cases if the defendant qualifies.
Nonetheless, Clatsop County DA Josh Marquis says he now expects a “wholesale attack on Measure 11 as a means of reducing the cost of corrections.”
What Shields and his allies have introduced so far falls short of that. They’re sponsoring bills, all opposed by the DAs, that would:
- Make courts inform juries of mandatory minimums.
- Reduce sentences for some crimes such as second-degree assault and second-degree robbery, but increase sentences for more serious offenses like first-degree rape.
- Give judges power to release juvenile offenders who were tried as adults after they complete half their sentence.
Also in the mix is a bill from Dingfelder that would make all Measure 11 sentences discretionary. Neely says its success seems unlikely. However, advocates are still pushing for widespread reforms in the coming weeks.
“We’d like to see efforts that take a broader approach at Measure 11 reform, rather than just doing it piecemeal,” says David Rogers, head of the Portland-based Partnership for Safety and Justice.
But DAs insist Measure 11 helped reduce violent crime in the state by half.
“You are substantially safer in Oregon,” says Neely, “because of Measure 11.”
FACT: Oregon spends a higher portion of its general fund on corrections than any other state—10.9 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Center.