Science, not emotion

Oregonians are as safe as 40 years ago; locking up more offenders wastes money

Gov. John Kitzhaber's recommended budget for the state has been received as governors' budgets traditionally are: Lawmakers from both parties have made conciliatory noises but committed to nothing, and interest groups directly affected by the proposals have expressed alarm.

Governors can propose, but the Legislature must adopt the budget, and there is a great deal of work to be done between now and the final adoption of a spending plan. Still, the governor has taken a clear-eyed approach to state spending that recognizes the real challenges Oregon faces as it struggles to emerge from recession, and his proposals deserve serious consideration.

In particular, Kitzhaber's call to rein in spending on state prisons has the potential to save taxpayers money and improve public safety at the same time. That may seem contradictory, but other states have shown that it can be done.

A Commission on Public Safety appointed by the governor in July 2011 has been working to examine Oregon's system of criminal sentencing and public safety. The commission will discuss recommended changes later this month, so the specifics are not yet known. But the general outline is clear.

The number of people in Oregon prisons has more than doubled from 1991 to 2011. At the same time, the crime rate has dropped steadily.

Supporters of strict sentencing laws argue that the reduction in crime resulted directly from the increase in imprisonment, but state and national data suggest that is not true. In Oregon, the incarceration rate has remained virtually unchanged since 2006, but the crime rate continued to drop.

A year ago, the commission reported to the governor that Oregon crime rates were about where they were in the 1960s. While Oregonians are safer than they have been in 40 years, the commission wrote, they believe crime is on the rise.

That perception has contributed to a series of ballot measures and legislation that increased the use of incarceration in direct contradiction to the state's sentencing guidelines. The result is a state prison system that spends more than it needs to.

As Kitzhaber emphasized when he released his budget proposal, he is not suggesting turning violent criminals loose to save money. Instead, nonviolent offenders can be dealt with in community corrections and drug court programs that focus on keeping offenders out of prison while holding them accountable for their actions.

The prison system now holds 14,600 prisoners. The governor proposes to hold the capacity at that level rather than allowing it to increase to 16,000 over the next decade, which current projections call for if no changes are made.

The Public Safety Commission suggested a year ago that Oregon's sentencing system should be "updated to include the advances in the science of corrections and offender supervision culled from the last 20 years of rigorous social science research on what is effective to reduce recidivism and control crime."

That means basing sentencing decisions on science, not emotion. If taxpayers' money can be saved in the process, so much the better.

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