Texas State Rep. Jerry Madden is nobody's idea of a bleeding-heart liberal, but he could be mistaken for one when he talks about sentencing reform.
Oregonians — especially those who support the state's mandatory-minimum sentencing laws such as Measure 11 and Measure 57 — should pay attention to Madden's advice. Spend more on substance abuse and mental health treatment, he says, beef up parole and probation supervision and spend less on prisons — a lot less.
That's just what famously tough-on-crime Texas has done. Under Madden's leadership as chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, Texas spent $300 million doing a better job of keeping people out of prison instead of the estimated $2 billion on new prisons that would have been needed if the state had kept doing things the old-fashioned way.
Now Madden is the go-to expert on sentencing reform, advising states across the U.S. and the national government of Canada on a new approach to crime and criminals. He was in Southern Oregon last week for a meeting of Gov. John Kitzhaber's Commission on Public Safety.
The commission, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz, is charged with figuring out new ways to keep Oregon communities safe while reducing the cost to the taxpayers and holding criminals accountable.
Oregon already is a leader in innovative approaches to criminal justice. Its drug courts and family courts — Jackson County's are considered models — have proven effective in addressing the substance abuse that underlies a great deal of criminal behavior.
But Oregon's system is burdened by voter-approved mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have required the state to build and staff more prisons. Since 1995, the state prison population has doubled from 7,000 to 14,000, and is projected to reach nearly 16,000 by 2018 — a 160 percent increase since 1990.
Much of that is the result of Measure 11, enacted by voters in 1994, which requires lengthy sentences for several violent crimes. Measure 57, passed in 2008, imposes longer sentences for repeat property and drug crimes — and requires drug and alcohol treatment for some offenders. The Legislature delayed implementing Measure 57 temporarily to help balance the budget in the 2009 session, but it will take effect in January, further driving up costs.
Madden's approach in Texas leaned heavily on more treatment and better supervision of those on parole and probation, which costs far less than building and staffing prisons. But Texas didn't have to deal with voter-enacted sentencing laws.
The Commission on Public Safety is just beginning its work. So far, its approach has been to study successful sentencing reform efforts proven to save money and keep the public safe at the same time.
Criticism is bound to come from vocal supporters of the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key philosophy, who will predict soaring crime rates and threats to public safety if reforms are implemented. Those critics should wait and let the commission do its work.
If Texas can do it, so can Oregon.