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.

Nov 102010

The passage of Oregon Measure 70 demonstrates that voters are still vulnerable  those would play on their fears and opt for vengeance rather than restoration without considering their high costs in the present and their guarantee of a greater problem with crime in the future.

MandMinsWILL THE fiscal collapse that has laid bare gross inequalities in the US economic system lead to meaningful reforms toward a more just society? One answer is suggested by the bursting of what might be called the “other housing bubble,’’ for these two years have also brought to crisis the three-decade-long frenzy of mass imprisonment. If there was a bailout for bankers, can there be one for inmates?

It is commonly observed now that, beginning about 1981, during the Reagan administration, the wealth of a tiny percentage of top-tier earners sky-rocketed, while the wages of the vast majority of Americans went flat. A rapid escalation in the illusory value of homeownership soon followed. But an unseen boom began then, too — in American rates of incarceration, the housing bubble in prisons. A recent issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, lays it out. In 1975, there were fewer than 400,000 people locked up in the United States. By 2000, that had grown to 2 million, and by this year to nearly 2.5 million. As the social scientist Glenn C. Loury points out, with 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States imprisons 25 percent of all humans behind bars. This effectively created a vibrant shadow economy: American spending on the criminal justice system went from $33 billion in 1980 to $216 billion in 2010 — an increase of 660 percent. Criminal justice is the third largest employer in the country.

But while prisons boomed, something else was happening — a trade-off. As sociologist Loic Wacquant says, the government was simultaneously slashing funds for public housing. In the 1990s, as federal corrections budgets increased by $19 billion, money for housing was cut by $17 billion, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the poor.’’ State budgets took their cues from Washington in a new but unspoken national consensus: poverty itself was criminalized. Although “law and order’’ was taken to be a Republican mantra, this phenomenon was fully bipartisan, as Wacquant shows, with the most ferocious growth in the incarceration of poor people occurring in the Clinton years. “Welfare as we know it’’ was replaced by punishment. States went prison-crazy.

But the current fiscal crisis has blown a hole through all that razor-wire. State budgets suddenly cannot afford prison systems, which universally choke off funds for education, transportation, and infrastructure… [emphasis added]

Inserted from <Boston Globe>

When we take money from education, housing, and infrastructure to pay for runaway incarceration, we are less safe than before, because the help needed to give poor youth a stake in their communities is will not be there, and because of that lack, even more will turn to crime.

I grant you that there are some prisoners who can never be released safely, bit based on what they have done, but based on their unwillingness to change.  Fortunately, they are few in number.  On the other hand there are prisoners like the ones we work with in the 7th Step Club at Oregon State Penitentiary.  They work tirelessly to understand the choices they made that led them into into crime, reform the defects in their thinking that enabled those choices, and develop intervention strategies to prevent recurrence, so they can return to their communities as productive citizens.  We are proud to support their efforts.

Sentencing and release policies that do not take into account such individual differences waste money that could be used far more effectively to prevent crime in the first place and to help former prisoners transition.

Jul 152010

In a recent guest editorial contrast, Joshua Marquis, Clatsop County District Attorney, presented  a highly vindictive view of justice.

Marquis is most famous as Oregon’s most extreme proponent of the death penalty.  His well known support for Measure 11 is also self-serving, because it gives him, as a prosecutor, more power over sentencing than the judge, because he decides whom he will prosecute under Measure 11, and whom he will prosecute under reduced charges.  I found his deceptive attacks on several fine organizations particularly offensive.

Paul Solomon, Director of Partnership for Safety and Justice, and Ron Chase, Director of Sponsors, responded to it, presenting a far more enlightened restorative view of justice.

15solomon The July 4 guest viewpoint by Josh Marquis, “In advocating for the inmates, let’s not forget about the crime,” requires a response.

We believe that people should be held accountable for their actions. We have worked with people in the criminal justice system for more than 30 years combined, and anecdotally can tell you that the vast majority of the people we have worked with do not forget about the crime that they committed. Even if they wanted to forget, criminal background checks for employment and housing, offender registration laws and supervision requirements make it very difficult for people to lose sight of their criminal histories and create myriad barriers to successful re-entry.

Marquis would have us believe that organizations such as the Partnership for Safety and Justice, Sponsors, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, and Better People are swimming in money and have no concern for the suffering and trauma experienced by many crime victims. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The groups Marquis criticizes are the very organizations that are seeking cost-effective solutions to crime that support the efforts of survivors of crime, people convicted of crime and the families of both to rebuild their lives. They advocate for the creation of policies that are less dependent on the over-reliance of incarceration — and actually make us safer.

As far as “swimming in money” is regarded, that got a good laugh. It has been a constant struggle over the years to simply keep Sponsors afloat. If Marquis would like to examine Sponsors’ budget, he is more than welcome. It should also be noted that Sponsors Inc. has never received a dime of Soros Foundation money, although we appreciate the suggestion and will look into it.

In fact, Sponsors contracts for state community corrections funds with Lane County to provide re-entry services to those being released from state prison and returning to Lane County. People in the “high-risk” (to re-offend) population served by Sponsors generally arrive homeless and indigent — and leave drug free, in compliance with release conditions, with stable employment and permanent, sustainable housing. There is no better service we can provide victims than to do our best to encourage those with criminal histories to change their ways and become productive community members.

Marquis would also have us believe that groups such as Crime Victims United and the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance are poor, ineffective organizations “operating on a wing and a prayer.”

This analysis is misleading and disingenuous. CVU, led by Steve Doell, is a highly influential organization that has deftly and successfully lobbied for “tough on crime” sentencing enhancements and challenged any efforts to slow the growth of our state corrections system, which now ranks No. 1 in the country in the percentage of general fund dollars spent on prisons.

15Chase Marquis also neglected to mention the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance, staffed by Ballot Measure 11 author Kevin Mannix and former Lane County District Attorney Doug Harcleroad. Their role should not be overlooked, either. Unlike the organizations named by Marquis, Mannix and his ballot measure campaigns have been extremely well-funded, having been the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars from out-of-state millionaire Loren Parks.

Measure 11 is the biggest driver of corrections spending in the state. Mandatory minimum sentencing schemes have forced a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the complex issue of crime and criminality.

Marquis points to a declining crime rate as a justifier for mandatory minimums. In actuality, crime rates have been dropping in Oregon and across the country for many years.

Criminologists will tell you that incarceration is but one factor in analyzing the fluctuating rates of crime. Age and economics have as much to do with crime rates, if not more, than incarceration. Furthermore, other states have realized a drop in crime while decreasing their prison population.

In these difficult economic times we need to spend our precious state resources wisely. As the state’s corrections director has said, our current prison growth “is on an unsustainable trajectory.”

While the vindictive justice advocated by Marquis, Mannix and Doell, among others, may provide a sense of satisfaction or a false sense of security, it does little to create a system that is cost efficient and fair while holding people accountable, and it does nothing to change their behavior.

It is unfortunate that Parks doesn’t use his millions to fund evidence-based programs proven to reduce future crime. The state’s ability to fund these programs has been reduced by the mandate for prison beds, which has consumed the lion’s share of the correction’s budget…

Inserted from <The Register Guard>

I completely agree with the restorative view.  Corrections has two functions.  The first is to protect our communities from the predations of dangerous criminals.  The second is to reform dangerous criminals into citizens who will no longer threaten our communities.

Vindictive justice does nothing to further either of those purposes.  Prisoners warehoused under inhumane conditions return to society both more bitter and better educated in crime then they were when they entered prison.  Since almost all prisoners eventually are released, are these the prisoners you want moving into your neighborhoods?

Restorative justice is a far better solution.  Prisoners, housed under humane conditions, encouraged and provided tools with which to transform their lives are far more likely to become law-abiding citizens.

Speaking personally, I am grateful organizations like Partnership for Safety and Justice, CURE, Sponsors, and, of course, our own 7th Step Foundation for the assistance and inspiration they provided me to transform my own life when I was in prison.  Never does a day pass that I do not remember my own crimes with shame and regret, but I am proud of the person I have become, maintaining my own freedom as a pro-social citizen for over eleven years since my release, volunteering in Oregon State Penitentiary and in my community, through 7th Step, to help other prisoners change and reintegrate, and co-facilitating a weekly therapy group for former prisoners.  I consider myself an example of what restorative justice can do.  Had I found only such attitudes as those of Mr. Marquis, I doubt I would have succeeded.

Jun 232010

I trust you will find this news release useful.


Contact: Adam Ratliff – 202-558-7974 x.306 / aratliff@justicepolicy.org

Jason Fenster – (202) 558-7974 x300 / jfenster@justicepolicy.org,

States can safely reduce prison populations and save money, new brief says

Reducing prison populations and maintaining public safety can both be accomplished while allowing state taxpayers to save money with more effective programs, group says.

opendoor WASHINGTON, D.C. — States should use innovative and evidence-based strategies to trim their prison populations, reduce the likelihood that a released person will return to prison and send fewer people to prison in the first place according to research released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). With many states facing budget crises, important decisions are being made about where money will and will not be spent. JPI found that increasing opportunities for parole and improving parole release decisions, improving parole supervision and ensuring access to support and treatment services are cost-effective means of cutting extraneous spending while maintaining public safety. In FY2008, states spent $52 billion on corrections, money that could be spent on infrastructure, education, housing and job creation, the group says.

“Increasing the availability of parole and making better decisions about who is released is smart policy,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “Options such as medical parole and geriatric release would yield tremendous monetary benefits, ensure people receive the services they need and would not be a detriment to public safety. States could in turn refocus savings toward crucial social services to help prevent people from entering prison in the first place.”

According to For Immediate Release: How to Safely Reduce Prison Populations and Support People Returning to Their Communities, released today by JPI, incarceration costs significantly less than parole supervision and some states are using innovative methods of supervision that are yielding positive results. As spending more time in prison does not equate to more public safety, releasing people early with appropriate supervision can be an effective way of reducing prison populations.

Velázquez added, “The notion that there is a public safety trade-off when shifting public dollars from prisons to positive, pro-social investments is false and has contributed to destructive policies that have given the United States the world’s largest incarceration rate and continue to disproportionately impact communities of color. Releasing people deemed ‘low risk’ to community supervision and providing adequate treatment and support services will improve outcomes and strengthen families and communities.”

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to reducing society’s use of incarceration and promoting just and effective social policies.

To read JPI’s report, “For Immediate Release” CLICK HERE. For other analysis on safe, effective means of saving money and ensuring public safety, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org.

Inserted from <Justicepolicy.org>

As excellent as these ideas are, many of them cannot be instituted here in Oregon, because mandatory minimum sentencing does not permit it.  The cost in human suffering promses to be high.

Kulongosky-cuts Gov. Ted Kulongoski said today he would implement most of the across-the-board spending cuts proposed by state agencies two weeks ago to eliminate a projected $577 million shortfall in tax collections.

“With limited options to balance the budget, and growing uncertainty about federal assistance, the longer we wait to implement these reductions, the deeper the cuts will have to be to bring the budget into balance,” he said after meeting with agency directors earlier today.

Read the report: List of Oregon State agency reductions.

The cuts amount to about 9 percent of spending from the tax-supported general fund for the second year of the state’s two-year budget cycle, which starts July 1. Some layoffs are likely.

Although Kulongoski rejected proposals to close three small prisons and cut deeply into community corrections grants for counties, he let stand proposals to eliminate Oregon Project Independence, halve in-home care for 10,500 seniors and cut federally funded personal care for 1,500 seniors, and others offered by agencies.

“I know these cuts are significant and will impact the lives of thousands of Oregonians across the state,” he said. “But we have to operate with the reality of today and we simply do not have the revenue to fund the level of services approved in the current budget.”

The governor invoked his authority under a 1951 law to cut spending across the board from the tax-supported general fund to eliminate the projected shortfall… [emphasis added]

Inserted from <Statesman-Journal>

Innocent seniors are not the only ones who will lose services, because Oregon’s mandatory minimum initiatives tie our state government’s hands, forcing them to incarcerate many who could safely be released.  While I disagree with Kulongoski’s decision, the way he has to juggle to balance the budget would be easier, were he not constrained by these measures.

Jun 072010

The best ways we can reduce the crime rate, long term, is through education to prevent crime and rehabilitative services to help prisoners change.  That makes this story so disturbing.

MandMins State reserve money that could have gone to education will likely go to state prisons and, according to some, support of crime initiatives is holding taxpayer money hostage.

Like every other state agency, Oregon’s Department of Corrections has been ordered by the governor to cut 9 percent of its budget, a total of $50 million.

“We have a bit of a box we’re in that is very difficult to manage,” said Max Williams, the director of the Department of Corrections.

Williams said voter-passed initiatives will keep him from making enough cuts.

“But I don’t believe we can get to the $50 million target without bumping into some amount of those restrictions that are on the system,” he said.

Those restrictions come from voter-approved initiatives Measure 11, the state’s minimum sentencing law; Measure 57, which keeps repeat property offenders in jail longer; Article 1, Section 44 is a voter-passed law that requires a judge’s sentence to be carried out, and numerous federal mandates, including inmate health care.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski on Tuesday said the Legislature will have to use state reserve funds to keep Oregon’s prison system compliant with the law.

“The choices they have are too severe. They can’t release people,” he said…

Inserted from <KATU>

Cutting funds to schools guarantees that more Oregonians will become criminals.  In these hard times, we should not be building more prisons, but mandatory minimum sentencing requires it.

Sadly, there are few places in a corrections budget where funds can be cut.  I fear that the most likely target will be programming to provide prisoners an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.

I urge you to support the repeal of Oregon Measures 11 and 57.