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Proposed sentencing guidelines could wreak havoc on legal system
As prison populations increase, state commission wants to reduce mandatory sentences and push costs back to counties
January 03, 2013
New sentencing guideline changes recommended by Oregon’s Commission on Public Safety to reduce prison populations have raised concerns among local law enforcement leaders.
In a recently released report, the Commission said that Oregon’s prison population has grown by nearly 50 percent to more than 14,000 inmates, costing taxpayers more than $1.3 billion each biennium. At the same time, the state has cut critical funding to state police, county sheriffs, community corrections, and victim services.
“Without action, prisons will consume an even greater share of Oregon’s public safety budget and overall state spending,” the commission reported. “The state projects its prison population will grow by another 2,300 beds in the next 10 years. This growth — fueled by mostly non-violent offenders — will cost taxpayers an additional $600 million.”
To reduce the Oregon prison population, the Commission has suggested changes to two Oregon ballot measures associated with sentencing guidelines. Changes to those ballot measures would require voter approval.
The Commission proposed removing Robbery 2, Assault 2, and Sex Abuse 1 from the list of Measure 11 offenses. The measure requires mandatory minimum sentences for specific violent crimes.
Crook County District Attorney Daina Vitolins does not believe the change will save the state much money, but she agreed that removal of some of the proposed crimes made sense. In particular, she referenced Assault 2, a crime causing serious injury with a weapon.
“I’m not sure that that kind of a case should be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence,” she said, “but I do also think it should be case-specific.”
Vitolins explained that in instances such as a bar fight where someone hits another person with a bottle, a judge should be able to decide the sentence rather than abide by an automatic guideline. Although she agreed with removing some Measure 11 offenses, Vitolins stressed that Sex Abuse 1, also proposed for removal by the Commission, should not come off the Measure 11 offense list.
Vitolins also takes exception with a Commission proposal to reduce sentencing requirements for Measure 57, which establishes penalties for repeat property crimes.
“The public safety commission is looking at it in terms of prison sentences and they have not even thought about what it costs the community,” she said. “How many victims do you need before you can take this person off the street?”
Along with the changes to the ballot measures, Vitolins disputes a proposal to increase earned time (early release) that is deducted from prison stays from 20 percent of the sentence to 30 percent. She feels that too many inmates receive the good behavior reduction whether they deserve it or not, and allowing an even greater reduction in prison time puts more citizens at risk.
Although Vitolins disagrees with some of the proposals, there are other Commission recommendations she supports. For example, one proposal weights sentencing thresholds for marijuana-related offenses with federal law, thereby making them more lenient and decreasing the likelihood of prison sentences.
She also agrees with a Commission recommendation to reduce sentencing guidelines associated with Driving While Suspended offenses.
“We (she and other district attorneys in Oregon) think that is the kind of crime where there is no victim,” she said. “You haven’t hurt anybody. You have driven when you weren’t supposed to.”
For Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley, his primary concern is whether or not the state will ask counties to keep inmates in local jails for sentences up to 24 months. Counties currently incarcerate offenders for up to one year. Beyond that timeframe, they go to prison.
By requiring counties to take inmates for 24 months, the state reduces the number of prison inmates and lowers its costs, but in turn, counties take on a greater expense — one that Hensley said Crook County cannot bear.
“We’re struggling now with our jail,” he said. “If they are expecting us to house more people, they are just burying us.”
During the late summer, Hensley hosted town halls where he emphasized the need for jail space, but a lack of funds to obtain it. In 2011, Crook County corrections released 745 inmates due to lack of beds.
The Commission did not recommend that counties hold inmates for 24 months in its report, but Hensley and other sheriffs have heard the idea suggested, even as recently as last month.
“What they are saying is they will pay us to do that,” he said. “Well, I’m going to tell you there is not much trust between sheriffs and the state on their word.”
The report also addressed a need to reduce how much each prison inmate costs. Right now, the state pays $84.48 per inmate for such things as security, health care, food, and mental health and drug treatment programs.
To lower that cost, the Commission has recommended setting a legislative target to reduce the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) cost per inmate per day by a specified percentage in the next 10 years.
Oregon Senator Doug Whitsett (R-Dist. 55) feels the DOC needs to target specific expenses in order to reduce inmate cost.
“The public employee cost for personal services seems quite high and the cost of health care for the inmates seems quite high,” he said.
Hensley feels that the DOC should cut costs the way county sheriff’s offices do.
“They were going cost-per-day-per-bed, but they don’t figure all of their administrative cost in,” he said. “But, we do.”