Oct 042011

The cost of building, maintaining and staffing prisons has grown exponentially over the years, so much so that Oregon has launched a new Commission on Public Safety to examine the costs and benefits of current practices and recommend improvements.

4prison costThe district attorneys of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties recently dropped by to complain that we’ve been awfully critical of public-safety policies that have, after all, seen crime plunge to the lowest level in 40 years.

Well, yes. But the DAs missed the point of our frustration, which is that Oregon has become a state that is more than willing to cut a child’s school year, but can’t possibly reduce a man’s prison sentence. Public safety — especially prisons and the sentencing policies that drive their costs — have been shielded from the cuts, the scrutiny and the reforms that have hit every other significant public service in Oregon.

That’s why we were so supportive of a new high-profile state commission on public safety in an editorial that prompted local DAs Mike Schrunk, John Foote and Bob Herman to come by for a friendly visit. It’s also why that it’s fine by us that the commission, which holds its first meeting today, doesn’t include DAs or anyone else whose first reflex is to defend the status quo. The commission will be led by Chief Justice Paul De Muniz of the Oregon Supreme Court and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

For 20 years prosecutors and victims’ rights group have taken the initiative on criminal sentencing. They’ve gotten what they wanted, including mandatory sentencing for major crimes against people and recently enhanced sentences for some property crimes. And yes, all this has helped reduce crime. Measure 11 has worked as advertised.

But it’s time to face the costs. Oregon’s prison system has grown into a $1.6 billion enterprise with 4,500 employees and 14,000 inmates. Oregon already spends nearly a dime of every general fund dollar on prisons…

Inserted from <The Oregonian>

Remember that the vast majority of people sentenced to prison terms will be released and return to live in our communities.  When that time comes, however long their sentences, the only thing that matters is whether or not they are still a threat to our communities.

Mandatory sentencing mitigates against reform.  As a prisoner, I took the first step toward habilitation by joining a program, only because I hoped doing do would get me released sooner.  To my great surprise, that program inspired me to rebuild myself into the person I wanted to become.  Eleven years of living as a productive citizen, since my release, demonstrates my success.  However, had I had a mandatory sentence, I might never have taken that first step and returned to my community, just as messed up as I was when I entered prison, but more bitter.

Spending money on helping prisoners and other offenders reform is a far better investment that longer incarceration.  It enhances public safety, and because it costs so much less, it leaves Oregon more to spend on education and community services that improve our quality of life.