Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A reasonable balance in criminal justice

Guest Column: A reasonable balance in criminal justice
Posted: Monday, August 26, 2013 9:35 am
For The Daily Astorian

I find it ironic that after almost five years in office U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has finally figured out that there are unfair and draconian federal sentencing laws.

The Daily Astorian’s Aug. 19 editorial (“We cannot afford these prison beds”) ignores the fact that federal sentencing takes up less than 5 percent of all prison beds in America.

The other 95 percent are state and local.

Congress passed draconian federal drug sentencing laws in the late 1980s, largely at the request of members of the Black Caucus which represented cities that were being decimated by the violence of crack cocaine trafficking. Still, it takes a lot to become a “federal case,” whether it involves cocaine, marijuana or money.

In Oregon a marijuana grow of less than 1,000 plants is generally too small to warrant federal prosecution. In the mid-1990s, I was told that an attempted theft from the U.S. Forest Service of about $750,000 was so small-time that it would be ignored unless I tried the case as a special federal prosecutor. I did, and convicted the man.

Oregon sentencing law allows for a maximum of 30 days in jail for almost all drug felons except those with very violent records. A person whose only crime is their addiction will not benefit from prison. Each of Clatsop County’s three circuit court judges operate “speciality courts” designed to keep felons out of prison or jail. Judge Nelson’s Drug Court even offers low-level heroin dealers the opportunity to keep a felony off their record if they will stay clean for six months and follow through on treatment.

Oregonians urgently need in-patient drug facilities and treatment plans, both in and out of correctional facilities. At the Meth Summit held here a few years ago, I was struck by the number of recovering addicts who personally thanked Sheriff Tom Bergin and me for locking them up, giving them a chance to get clean and stay clean long enough to realize they were on the wrong path.

When you look at incarceration numbers, you need to remember that there is a distinction between prison and jails. Prisons are reserved for people convicted of felonies. They are paid for either by the state or by the federal government. Jails hold a wide variety of criminals, generally for short stays, and are financed locally.

Prisons take up less than 6 percent of Oregon’s budget and much less of the federal budget. The cost of doing what Oregon did in the 1960s and 1970s – almost wishing its way out of crime – resulted in the highest crime rates in modern history. Oregon has since reached a balance of incarceration and probation.

Oregon’s U.S. attorney (like Colorado’s top federal prosecutor) said very recently that the problems Holder has recently described aren’t happening in their districts. As Willamette Week reported in a story reprinted recently in The Daily Astorian, Oregon’s system imprisons only the most dangerous and persistent felons.

The latest editorial also claims “we currently imprison more than 700 (people) per 100,000.” Where? Not in Clatsop County. Not in Oregon. Even the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics placed the total incarceration rate, including federal and state jails and prisons, closer to 540 per 100,000. And according to 2012 figures from the Oregon Department of Corrections, the rate of felons going to prison from Clatsop County was 180 per 100,000. The statewide average for that year was 143 per 100,000.

In Oregon, 75 percent of felons never go to prison, and more than 65 percent of today’s 14,200 inmates (one-third of 1 percent of the population) are in prison for violent crimes – felony sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery or homicide.

Calling the prison system a “crippling system” is a false cry for economy. An effective and balanced system, with treatment centers and adequate probation officers to work with the majority of offenders who are not incarcerated, will cost a significant amount more than we’re spending now. But the result will be a safer, freer and less fearful society.

An effective criminal justice system lies between hysterical calls to lock everyone up and throw away the key, and accusations of exorbitant costs to keep hundreds of thousands of people in prison simply because of a minor misjudgment.

To see how justice works in Clatsop County, I invite you again to come and watch the various drug and treatment courts in action. Or come to court any day at 1:15 when the people considered most dangerous are brought before the court for the first time to determine whether they should even stay in jail.