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Election Oregon Legislature (copy) (copy)

The golden pioneer statue standing atop the Capitol rotunda in Salem is silhouetted by the sun breaking through fog.

The Legislature is considering a pair of bills that could have a major impact on how law enforcement officers and prosecutors conduct their business in Linn County and throughout the state. 

While some portions of the bills are well-meaning, lawmakers would do well to take a moment in the rush to adjournment to consider how the combined result of the bills might affect law enforcement efforts back home.

House Bill 2355 would reduce possession of certain controlled drugs — heroin, methamphetamine and Oxycodone among them — from a felony to a misdemeanor in certain circumstances. (The bill also requires law enforcement agencies to record information regarding vehicle stops to get a better handle on possible racial profiling; we have no objection to that portion of the bill, which should yield important information.)

Part of the rationale behind making possession of these drugs misdemeanors is to reduce strain on the state's prisons. But Linn County Attorney Doug Marteeny notes that it's virtually impossible to send a defendant to prison for mere possession; in fact, he said, typical sentences even for felony possession now stretch for only a week or two.

Marteeny argues that making these drug crimes misdemeanors will hamper the ability of prosecutors to shepherd defendants into alternative programs such as drug courts that help to break the brutalizing chain of addiction and crime.

Marteeny says that possession of meth is the most frequent case his office prosecutes these days. Possession of heroin is No. 3.

And No. 2 is first-degree theft, which brings us to House Bill 3078. This bill, which the House passed on Wednesday, would, among other things, reduce presumptive sentences from 18 months to 13 months for some offenders convicted of first-degree theft or identity theft. It's part of an effort to help control the number of people Oregon sends to prison; in this particular case, since theft and ID theft are crimes often committed by women, the idea is to help prevent the need to construct another women's prison.

A couple of thoughts come to mind: First, since the number of female prisoners is expected to grow by just 11 over the next decade, according to figures provided by Rep. Andy Olson of Albany, the need for a new women's prison isn't at all clear-cut, especially as the state (wisely) increasingly invests more in community-based corrections.

Second, it's important to think about what the potential combined effects of HB 2355 and HB 3078, in part because of the connection between drug crimes and property crimes. Remember those statistics from Marteeny about the most frequent crimes his office prosecutes? It's not a coincidence that first-degree theft is sandwiched in the middle at No. 2: Marteeny said 85 percent of property crime is driven by drug use. Olson, who worked for the Oregon State Police before retiring and running for the Legislature, said he worries that the combination of the two bills will help trigger an increase in property crime. 

Some of the other strategies in HB 3078 might well be effective in keeping a check on the prison population in Oregon, just as the information-gathering component of HB 2355 could result in useful and important information about the extent of racial profiling among Oregon law enforcement agencies.

But Olson said his pleas to House leadership to separate out the useful parts of HB 2355 have gone unheeded, even though the bill seems to be an unwieldy conglomeration of ideas that only are tangentially related. (Proponents argue that the drug laws disproportionately affect people of color, which likely is true, but the bill calls for collecting data solely from traffic and pedestrian stops.)

Legislators will want to consider how these two measures, if approved, will affect law enforcement efforts back home. They may not like the results of their calculations. (mm)