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Governor’s sentencing reform bill has mixed reviews
Local and state representatives sound off about the proposed House Bill 3194, which would reform Measure 11
March 21, 2013
As budget season gets in full swing in Salem, efforts to carve out expenses to save money for Oregonians are front and center — and public safety is no exception.
One of these proposals includes House Bill 3194, in which proponents for the bill are touting that it could save $600 million in prison costs throughout the next decade. Currently, the state alleges that it costs approximately $84 per day per inmate, and approximately $10 million over the entire budget period for the state.
The amount of dollars required per day to house an inmate in Oregon is among the costliest in the nation, according to Oregon Senator Doug Whitsett. He cited a PEW Research Center report issued in June 2012 that places Oregon at well above any other state in that metric.
House Bill 3194, proposed by Oregon Representative Chris Garrett (D-Lake Oswego), would roll back or remove mandatory sentences under Measure 11, which was passed by voters in 1994. It includes offenses such as first-degree sex abuse, second-degree robbery and second-degree assault. It would also eliminate mandatory adult prosecution of persons who are 15, 16, or 17 years-of-age, and are alleged to have committed these same crimes. The bill would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences applicable to certain repeat drug offenders. It would increase the period of short-term transitional leave programs and require courts to allow eligible offenders to participate in alternative incarceration programs, unless it finds substantial reasons to prohibit participation.
The bill will have implications throughout the state, not only in the state prison system, but the local communities and legal systems as well. Oregon Representative Mike McLane (R-Ore), said that sentencing reform has been proposed by the Governor, and is a key budget element of the Democratic co-chair’s budget.
“Yet, there has been no consensus reached in the Legislature as to what aspect, if any of sentencing reform will occur,” stated McLane. “I am not interested in supporting anything that would reduce the safety of our community, but there is more to learn about some of the alternatives.”
Whitsett commented in his March e-newsletter, “I agree that Oregon should increase its investment in evidenced-based Community Corrections and probation programs that are proven to improve public safety. I also believe that Oregon should increase its investment in addiction treatment programs and specialty courts that deal directly with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as veterans, juvenile and mental health issues. Finally, development of more effective reentry programs is essential because more than 93 percent of all Oregon inmates will eventually return to the community where they were originally convicted.”
Measure 11 was passed by voters in 1994, and included a minimum, mandatory sentence for certain person-to-person crimes. The sentencing judge could not give a lesser sentence than that prescribed by Measure 11, and a prisoner’s sentence could not be reduced for good behavior. Prisoners could not be paroled prior to serving their minimum sentence. It applied to all defendants, ages 15 and over, and required juveniles more than 15 years of age who are charged with serious person-to-person crimes to be tried as adults.
Ballot Measure 10, also passed in 1994, permitted the Oregon Legislative Assembly to change Measure 11, but only with a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
Whitsett added in his newsletter, “We are in the process of analyzing the Department of Correction’s recent and projected budgets, as well as having heard several days of testimony by the Department and others. After weighing that information, I have developed some serious concerns regarding both the Commission’s report and the Department’s budget”.
He went on to say that the modest growth in the number of inmates estimated to be incarcerated over the next few years can easily be housed in existing facilities that are currently nowhere near capacity. Reducing inmate growth in the short term will save some money by reducing the increase in needed staff to supervise those inmates.
“However, I doubt if that projected savings will create anywhere near the cash flow required to pay for the contemplated expansions in community services,” said Whitsett. “We asked the Department several weeks ago for specific numbers on how much they believe would actually be saved during the next two or three budget periods and are still waiting for those figures.”
Prineville Police Department Chief Eric Bush is concerned that the push to modify Measure 11 is really about a push to reduce costs to the Department of Correction.
“It may need to be reduced, but I am not sure modifying Measure 11 is the way to do it,” said Bush. “Measure 11, by all measures, seems to work quite well.”
Bush said that he is concerned about the statistics and data that are being used to justify post-prison supervision programs, and their effectiveness.
“When you look at the way that state is measuring recidivism, (reoffending) a person only reoffends according to the state statistics, not only if they are arrested for a felony crime, but that felony crime has to result in a conviction that results in a return to the state prison system,” he explained.
He added that any offender who is arrested for any other offense, regardless of the seriousness of the crime, if it doesn’t result in their return to state prison, it doesn’t show up in the statistics.
“It gives the appearance that they have not reoffended.”
Bush noted that a tiny percentage of the criminals that the local law enforcement deal with end up in state prison. Most serve their time in the county corrections system.
“They (state statistics) are showing that the people in these programs aren’t re-offending,” he said. “It all boils down to how you measure re-offending.”
Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley also has reservations of House Bill 3194. He indicated that the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association is not in favor of the bill. He said that one of the biggest issues is the fact that Measure 11 was passed by citizens.
“That’s what, at the time, they chose to enact into law,” said Hensley.
Regardless of the law, he believes that the Legislature should honor what the citizens voted into law. Hensley, like Bush, believes that Measure 11 is working, and agreed with him that the push for House Bill 3194 really comes down to money.
Hensley is also worried about promises by the state to provide funds for programs that are referred to in House Bill 3194. He said that over the years, county jails have been given the bare minimum to operate from the state, and he is worried that history will repeat itself in regards to the money promised for the transitional and incarceration programs.
Crook County District Attorney Daina Vitolins is also concerned about the proposed legislation by the Oregon Commission on Public Safety in Governor Kitzhaber’s office. Like Bush, she sees the statistics and data used for measuring recidivism from the state as skewed. She said that some serious crimes such as reckless endangering, assaulting a public safety officer, or some sexual assault crimes would not be calculated in the data, because they aren’t felonies that require the offenders to spend time in state prison.
“You can have multiple out-of-state convictions, and those aren’t counted,” she added.
Vitolins is the Co-Chair of the Oregon District Attorney’s Legislative Committee. She has been highly involved with issues involving Measure 11.
“What is going on right now in my opinion, in Oregon, there are certain elements who have a philosophy about sentencing. ‘We can basically treat everybody and we don’t send anybody to prison.”’
She added that this is used to justify the reasoning of House Bill 3194. She emphasized that Measure 11 was cast twice, and passed by voters.
“The citizens have had the opportunity to vote on Ballot Measure 11 twice. Overwhelmingly, they have said, ‘we like it.”
She said that she believes that Oregon would see an increase in violent crime would begin to increase if House Bill 3194 is enacted.
“The debate is still going of what the effect of the Governor’s sentencing reform will be,” added McLane. “I certainly don’t think it makes our communities safer by reducing sentencing of violent criminals. However, if the sentencing reform is limited to non-violent criminals and has prison programs that have been proven to be effective, and if we can achieve good results with more local control and save money, then I am open to it.”