Oregon could use a long, hard look at how it spends scarce public-safety funds
Are there more cost-effective ways for Oregon to fight crime? It's hard to imagine a more important public policy question in a financially strapped state on a path to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on prisons, even as it starves its juvenile justice system, drug treatment and other programs aimed at reducing criminal recidivism.
The Oregon Commission on Public Safety has sent Gov. John Kitzhaber a report summarizing its findings after several months of gathering testimony and information. The commission asserts that sentencing reform could hold Oregon's prison population steady at around 14,000 inmates and allow the state to divert more money to other, more effective, public-safety programs.
Of course, that's a controversial conclusion in a state where voters have embraced ever-tougher, longer and more expensive prison terms. Oregon's district attorneys, among others, argue that the state's criminal justice system isn't broken, and doesn't need fixing.
Our view is that a state that has seen its Department of Corrections grow by 97 percent since 1995, becoming a $1.4 billion enterprise, the third largest state agency, ought to at least be interested in taking a long and thoughtful look at whether mandatory sentencing and ever-increasing prison costs amount to the best or only way to fight crime.
The seven-member commission has asked Kitzhaber to enlarge the panel by adding representatives from law enforcement, the defense bar and victims' groups, and give it the time and authority to spend this year debating and crafting potential public-safety reforms. That ought to be one of the governor's first acts of the new year.
The commission led by Paul DeMuniz, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court spent the past several months gathering testimony and information from around the country on the latest thinking in corrections policy. It contends that sentencing reform could shift money now spent on prisons to more effective parole and probation programs, drug and alcohol treatment and other "evidence-based" programs that would do more to reform offenders and reduce criminal recidivism.
No one is arguing that Oregon's current system is broken -- on the contrary, its incarceration rate is among the nation's lowest, and its rate of criminal recidivism also is better than in most states. The issue is whether still-greater spending on prisons remains the best, most cost-effective answer to crime, even after crime rates have fallen to 40-year lows, and even as treatment and education programs have shown success at reducing recidivism.
For years now, Oregon has increased spending on prisons even while cutting deeply into its youth authority and consistently failing to fund the state police at a level that would sustain 24-hour patrols seven days a week. Moreover, the state released 4,500 inmates from prison in 2011, but only 2.5 percent of its corrections budget was dedicated to programs and education to prepare inmates for re-entering society.
Those spending choices, those priorities, don't reflect the best practices and latest research on public safety. Is there a better way? Oregon needs answers, and it needs them before it puts thousands more people behind bars.