by Dan Tilkin KATU News and Staff

PORTLAND, Ore. - A tough-on-crime measure passed by Oregon voters was suspended by state lawmakers because they said the state couldn’t afford it, but according to a preliminary report by district attorneys, legislators made their decision on bad data.

Measure 57 was passed by a strong majority of voters and called for cracking down on criminals habitually breaking into homes and stealing cars.

The Voters Pamphlet said Measure 57 was going to cost $153 million the first two years. The Legislature appropriated a smaller sum of $58.5 million.

But a study by the District Attorneys Association found it only cost $5 million to $9 million for the year Measure 57 was enforced.

The district attorneys say that wasn’t the first time they’ve battled overestimation.

When Measure 11 was passed in 1994 voters were told it would require more than 6,000 new prison beds by the year 2000. The actual number turned out to be less than half that. Recent data shows the number is still well below the forecast: about 3,800.

“There have been other attempts to change Measure 11 or to repeal Measure 11 and every time it’s going to break the system, and it hasn’t broken the system,” said Columbia County District Attorney Stephen Atchison. “And that pattern has seemed to have repeated itself in Measure 57, and if that is evidence of collusion, or whatever you like to call it, that argument could be made.”

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said he believes there’s an ideological battle waging over the issue.

“There are people in the building, as they say, in Salem who have very strong opinions that prison is generally not a good idea, and they are deliberately driving the numbers as high as they can make them in order to force Oregonians to make what I believe are false choices,” Marquis said.

Sen. Chip Shields, D-Portland, said he’s not sure what Marquis is talking about.

Shields has led the fight to spend less on locking people away. In March 2009 he said that the “criminal just system is out of whack, out of balance and we need to get it back into balance” when he had another report that supported his position about the value of more rehabilitation.

But he said he won’t comment on the district attorneys’ new report because it hasn’t been officially released.

When asked if it was justified to suspend Measure 57 if the numbers show the cost less, Shields said, “I think the real question is why isn’t it costing as much, and what I think you will see, when the final draft comes in, is part of the reason why it’s not costing as much as anticipated is because property crime is plummeting. That is the real point here.”

He said he doesn’t know why property crime is down or if it has anything to do with Measure 57.

Part of the problem may be because of a disconnection between the district attorneys and policymakers.
The district attorneys said they told policymakers and legislators that they wouldn’t use the tough-on-crime laws against everybody, which would save money. The policymakers said they asked the district attorneys for specifics about how that would be done but they never got the information.

“I don’t think the district attorneys told the forecasters, ‘we’re going to plead down a substantial number of these cases to a lesser offense,’” said Craig Prins of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

The district attorneys said their offices don’t have a crystal ball to give specific data but that history should show the cost of getting tough on crime has been overestimated.

“I can understand how someone can get it maybe 20 percent wrong, or maybe 40 percent wrong, but 90 percent wrong, I have a hard time believing that,” said Marquis.

All agree, however, that in this situation it is hard to come up with how much these tough-on-crime measures will cost.

Measure 57 is slated to come back to life in 2012.