Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Measure 57: the best way forward in this fiscal crisis

Guest opinion by Bradley Berry, John Foote, Josh Marquis and Michael Schrunk, guest opinion May 24, 2009
Last November, Oregon voters overwhelmingly enacted Ballot Measure 57, which enhances penalties for repeat property offenders and provides drug and alcohol treatment for addicted offenders.
In passing the measure, voters embraced a balanced system of justice with incentives for those willing to change and the power to sanction those who abuse the rights of others. Based on the balance between accountability and access to treatment, Oregon's 36 district attorneys joined a broad coalition of partners to vigorously support the measure.

Measure 57 was carefully crafted to give judges the power to incapacitate repeat property offenders for a time sufficient to ensure they can obtain treatment during their time in prison. Eligible offenders who successfully complete treatment programs are entitled to significant sentence reductions. The measure, which has been in effect for six months and impacted 125 offenders, is fair and balanced.
Unfortunately, since the implementation of the measure, the state and many of its citizens are confronting an unprecedented fiscal crisis. The economy makes it impossible for the state to conduct business as usual. As a result, some are questioning the wisdom of implementing a measure that may place an additional burden on the budget. Of course, it is precisely during these difficult budget times that we must most ardently protect our personal possessions. Oregonians cannot afford to have their identities appropriated, their cars stolen or their homes burglarized.
We must, nevertheless, find a way to balance our state budget. Oregon's district attorneys are committed to working with state lawmakers to find a financially responsible solution that does not erode the public safety successes achieved over the past 20 years -- Oregon's violent crime rate has decreased by 46 percent and our property crime rates have declined from a high of fourth worst in the nation down to 18th.
Oregon's district attorneys and crime victims groups have suggested the Legislature make reductions to our public safety system based on four core principles. Foremost, we must protect the public and minimize victimization. Second, any policy changes intended to save system costs must be one-time, reversible adjustments. Third, any cuts to the public safety sector must be balanced. Disproportionate reductions to any one sector, be it the courts, public defenders or the front-line officers, can cause the entire system to collapse. Finally, the public expects transparency in our sentencing policies. If we must cut sentences, victims and our citizens deserve to know at the outset the extent to which our budget crisis will reduce accountability for criminals.
To achieve a balanced budget, the district attorneys and crime victims groups have proposed that the Legislature enact a system of targeted reductions for nonviolent offenders who are nearing the end of their sentences. We would rather no prisoner get out early. However, by targeting those offenders who are low- and medium-risk, we believe it is possible to maximize cost savings while minimizing the risk of reoffending.
To further reduce revictimization, we support using federal stimulus dollars and, possibly, a modest reinvestment of the savings to create new re-entry programs or enhance existing community services. Small reductions in our recidivism rates can generate substantial long-term savings.
It is not a politically expedient proposal. No legislator wants to be responsible for opening the back doors of our prisons. Yet the unprecedented shortfall will mean hard votes across the budget -- larger class sizes, reduced services for the vulnerable and more. While unpleasant, there is simply no way to cut $250 million from the public safety budget without letting people who belong in prison out early.
Sometimes the hard way is the right way. A one-time sentence reduction for Oregon's nonviolent criminals will allow us to maintain a functional court system, an operational public defense network, and most importantly, an adequate state police presence with sufficient forensic capabilities.
It will also allow us to enact Measure 57, which was endorsed by a wide swath of politicians and advocates. We need to stand by those promises. The criminals affected by Measure 57 are repeat burglars and repeat identity thieves, not first-time offenders. These are people often in the throes of drug addiction and at the height of their criminal behavior. It makes more sense to hold them accountable now and hope to use treatment programs that have been shown to work. If we have to reduce our prison population, let's do it using those less dangerous felons who have hopefully learned something from their stay in prison.
Bradley Berry is Yamhill County district attorney, John Foote is Clackamas County district attorney, Josh Marquis is Clatsop County district attorney and Michael Schrunk is Multnomah County district attorney.
See also:
"Let's suspend Measure 57," guest opinion by Chuck Sheketoff, The Oregonian, June 24, 2009
"Oregon's in a box on prison spending", by the Oregonian Editorial Board, June 24, 2009