Saturday, January 1, 2011

Uncle Ted slams our hands in the door on his way out

Governor Ted Kulongoski, one-time Attorney General and one-time friend of many in Oregon law enforcement, has been making it very clear since early in his second term that he has stopped listening to many of us who helped get him elected. He is instead  listening to the criminal defense zealots who think that whenever virtually anyone is locked up our system has failed.

Almost without exception, Governor Kulongoski has appointed criminal defense lawyers to judicial positions and has failed to take the counsel of the 72 elected sheriffs and DAs, many of whom helped him get elected in both 2002 and 2006. I should know because I dragged many kicking and screaming onboard, promising not to worry about sentiments like those reflected in this short video clip from an exit interview with Willamette Week reporters.

I don’t receive any kind of bonus or award for the number of people my office advocates a judge or jury should send to prison. In fact, less than 25% of those convicted of felonies actually get sent to prison and the average sentence, including supposedly draconian Measure 11 sentences for violent crimes, is less than 4 years.

It is virtually impossible to go to prison in Oregon for your first meth deal, home burglary, or any of the vast majority of felonies. Despite the urban legends Willamette Week and others spin about Measure 11, even in most of those cases judges have the authority to grant non-mandatory sentences. In the vast majority of sentences judges are in fact limited only by how tough their sentences can be.

Violent crime is dramatically down in Oregon and even the academic researchers, at least nationally, credit increased incarceration. The let-em-loose crowd makes the point that 97% of inmates eventually get out. Absolutely true since you either have to have committed aggravated murder and a huge string of violent sexual crimes to get an effective life sentence in Oregon. (A 60-year-old man who gets 40 years is getting a life sentence). But “re-entry” is becoming a new code word, like “evidence-based” or any number of other new urban jargon, for avoiding individual responsibility and accountability.

As Governor Kitzhaber opens his third term we can hope he will look for appointments beyond those who have stated they think the People are stupid for having voted for truth in sentencing. Kulongoski says our system is like putting a net across the river to catch 20% of the “bad fish” and that we inevitably catch, and by extension lock up, people who don’t belong there. Please identify a group of these people. And I don’t mean the carefully selected case WWeek gets pitched by some defense attorney. For every one of those I can produce 10 cases where vicious criminals escaped deserved punishments because of holes in our sentencing system.

As the state struggles to balance its budget, what is most important and where is money best spent? How much money is saved by spending $1 locking up a violent inmate?  Almost $5 in just financial costs alone, to say nothing of the emotional and social consequences. Legislators keep spending millions more every biennium on (certainly needed) public defense and keep cutting prosecution, most recently to punish prosecutors like me who call them out for making false claims about the costs of voter initiatives. (Grossly inflating the costs of Measure 57, for example.)


  1. Well said, Josh. I certainly agree that the prison system in Oregon is broken and needs to be fixed. Hopefully, when the problems are considered, the disfunctional jail systems will also be included. It seems silly that in the 21st Century, we have a federal, state and local incarcaration system where none of the players pay attention to the other players. There is no good reason why the state prison system and the 36 or so local jails cannot be combined into a single system. In fact, prison systems are one of the few governmental functions that cry for centralization. Centralization would ensure that professional corrections officials are in charge of all people incarcerated and that all facilities are appropriately utilized. Now we have some facilities that are full while others lay idle and the officials in charge simply whine about not having "enough money". I would appreciate you pressing this reorganization.

  2. It's been proved that abortion, not increased incarceration, that has led to the drop.