Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Guns v. Butter again

Does it really make sense to cut funding for alcohol and drug treatment and cognitive programs proven to reduce repeat criminal behavior while spending more on longer sentences for property crimes already at a historic low across the state? -- Oregonian Editorial Board, "Locking in Prison Spending," June 7, 2011
The Oregonian Editorial Board is totally missing the boat on this and is buying into the "guns or butter" fallacy that our choice is either to properly educate kids or not lock up someone who racked up their fourth DUII in ten years, which is what Measure 73 does. (The sentence, which was supposed to be 13 months, is now likely to be 90 days in jail.)

We spend relatively very little on public safety in Oregon - less than 15% of the General Fund -- compared to almost 60% for education. Oregon is in the bottom third of US states in the rate of incarceration. Less than 75% of convicted felons go to prison and when they do the average sentence is less than 4 years.
The Oregonian gives Kevin Mannix too much credit. He wrote Measure 73 but despite the opposition of the Oregonian and both candidates for Governor, by an almost 2 to 1 margin Oregon voters approved making a fourth DUII (instead of a fifth) within 10 years a felony and increasing sentences for what was expected to be about a dozen repeat violent sex offenders. The 2008 Voters Pamphlet claimed that Measure 57 (passed by over 60% as a compromise measure to Mannix's Measure 61 in 2008) would cost $70 million a year and it ended up costing less than $12 million.

And the claim in this editorial that "the measure establish[ed] longer mandatory sentences for property offenses" is simply wrong. There is only one mandatory sentence in Measure 57 -- for dealing in excess of a pound of meth or heroin. All the other sentences are "presumptive" -- that is, suggested sentences which judges can ignore if they choose. The law was written to counteract Mannix's much more draconian Measure 61 and sold as a fair and reasonable alternative -- and then promptly shut down after barely a year as "far too expensive."

Without Measure 57 (which is currently suspended) a judge cannot send someone with "only" one previous felony to prison -- at all -- for, say, stealing and vandalizing a $25,000 statute. That is not a hypothetical. Marcus Bologna, with a felony burglary conviction, was convicted of chopping up a statute of Sacajawea and the judge could not give him more than 20 days in jail although on paper the charge for which he was convicted - Aggravated Theft - carries a theoretical sentence of 10 years in prison.

And the Oregonian now wants the legislature to tell the voters -- again -- that it knows better and that crime being at an all-time low has nothing to do with the fact we are finally locking up the one-half of one percent of Oregonians who victimize the rest of the state. Yes, one-half of one percent is the total of youths locked up in Oregon Youth Authority (where half the "residents" are 18 or older plus the adults in the Department of Corrections.

Don't stop treatment programs. Augment them with ones that are not merely trendy and "evidence-based" but with programs that actually stand up to the test of time and common sense, and put those programs into prisons where inmates can't miss three out of four meetings, as they too often do when they are probation. The counties are tasked with treatment and probation supervision for the 75 percent of felons who don't go to prison, and the state doesn't give the counties enough money to do the jobs. The state pays virtually nothing for the counties to supervise and treat the even greater number of misdemeanor offenders who "just" commit domestic violence or have "only" three DUII convictions. We ignore their criminality at the peril of the women they beat, the other drivers on the road, and ultimately the offenders themselves who are rarely made to face real consequences.

Measure 73 was supposed to repay counties that locked up a felony DUII driver for his fourth DUII in ten years, but now apparently the state wants to bail on that promise. The Oregonian asks who should be let loose, a repeat DUII offender or a domestic violence defendant.

How about neither. How about stepping up and recognizing that a fair and just system cannot be ensured on an extreme budget plan; and that if we want to replicate the stunning success of reducing violent crime, we need to make sure consequences are real and relatively soon. Many studies have shown that it is the swiftness and certainty of consequences more than the severity that truly dissuades and prevents criminal re-offending.

Every day at 1:15 pm I appear in court and recommend the release of repeat felons because the state doesn't give the county any money to run its jail. Who is more dangerous, the meth dealer or the repeat wife beater? I usually opt to keep the latter in jail, but it is a lousy choice. I could ask that they all be locked up, but they'd be released under a "matrix" system many counties use to limit their liability.

If the Oregonian and some legislators keep on saying they are smarter than the voters and that all we need is good group hug, then don't be surprised if even tougher and more expensive ballot measures are passed. We entrust important decisions about individual guilt to twelve ordinary citizens. Legislators might better listen to the voters. And let's give credit to the lawmakers who understand the basic tenets of democracy instead of chiding them for not overturning the will of the people.