A law approved by this year's Legislature appears to have made some immediate progress toward one of its goals, fending off for the time being the costly opening of a second women's prison in the state.
But whether the law in the long run improves public safety in Oregon will depend on a large degree on the state's willingness to properly fund community-based corrections programs.
A new report from the state Office of Economic Analysis reports that the state's prison population is expected to be 11 percent less in the coming decade than previously projected. That's mainly thanks to House Bill 3078, which made three adjustments to state law to try to reduce the number of female prisoners:
• First, it expanded eligibility criteria for the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program to allow more parents to participate.
• Second, it increased the limit for a supporting early-release program known as short-term transitional leave from 90 to 120 days.
• The third provision was by far the most controversial: It reduces the sentences for first-degree theft and identity theft, from 18 months down to 13 months. Lawmakers targeted those specific crimes because they're more likely to be committed by women. Many district attorneys, including Linn County's Doug Marteeny, had serious reservations about that provision. The bill ended up passing mostly (but not entirely) on party lines, with Democrats tending to support it and Republicans against.
Mostly as a result of the bill, the number of inmates housed in Oregon prisons (14,725 as of the Oct. 1 report) is expected to fall significantly over the next five years and then should grow nominally. The number of female inmates is expected to drop by 8 percent. The overall inmate population is expected to drop by 0.1 percent in the next 10 years, compared to an estimated 12 percent growth in the state's population. (Over the previous 10 years, the report said, the inmate population has kept pace with the state's population.)
One immediate result: Plans to open the second women's prison, with a price tag of $10 million, have been put on ice for the time being.
But it will take years to gauge the full impact of the new law — and whether it makes Oregon communities safer.
Tim Colahan, executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, told the Portland Tribune that the law needs "to be judged by the impact on the rates of crime and recidivism. … Safety should not be compromised for savings."
One of the bill's proponents, Andy Ko, the executive director of the nonprofit group Partnership for Safety and Justice, argued the other side to the Tribune: "We know that addiction and mental illness are the primary contributors to many drug and property crimes." Ko said it makes more sense to invest in drug abuse treatment, mental health care and other services instead of warehousing inmates in prison cells.
But it's essential that the state follow through on this effort by ensuring that community-based correctional programs are properly funded. Prisons, of course, are by far the most expensive stop on the corrections program.
Which is why community-based programs, done right and funded adequately, can be considerably more cost-effective than prison and help reduce recidivism rates. But if we're just releasing offenders back into the community with limited supervision and without access to the mental-health and addiction programs they need, we won't be doing them (or our communities) any favors.
The $10 million saved by not opening another women's prison helped to plug the state's billion-dollar budget shortfall. But imagine if we had been able to spend all of that money on community-based programs. It's another example of the difficulty state officials have in focusing on solutions that will save money and make communities stronger over the long run. (mm)