Sentencing debate is worthwhile

It makes sense to look for ways to save money on Oregon's state prison system

The number of Oregonians who consider legislative sparring a form of entertainment probably isn't large. Sure, some people put on their headphones and call up recorded committee hearings online (yes, you can do that). But we're not talking Monday Night Football here.

For such people, though few in number, the coming battle over criminal sentencing means one thing: Good times!

In mid-December the Commission on Public Safety released a highly anticipated report after spending many hours over many months considering ways to slow the growth of state prison spending.

This effort has not been without controversy. A number of district attorneys have looked askance at the process, and one — commission member and Clackamas County DA John Foote — discovered with justifiable irritation that a count of "low-risk" offenders included some folks on death row.

Nonetheless, the exercise has been worthwhile. The money lawmakers spend on prisons could be used for other things — schools, for instance — so it makes sense to ask whether spending on prisons is as efficient as it might be. The real fighting begins with the answers and where they lead.

Adjusting criminal sentences, an obvious way to corral prison spending, is such a touchy subject that the commission offered a range of options rather than a single set of recommendations receiving its enthusiastic support. The least aggressive option focuses on sentences for driving and marijuana offenses. The most aggressive includes modifications to criminal sentences approved by voters through the initiative process. It also would allow criminals to truncate their sentences by behaving themselves and participating in various programs.

By presenting a range of options rather than supporting a single menu, the commission managed to avoid a split vote among its members. Nonetheless, Foote penned an alternative report on behalf of the Oregon District Attorneys Association that begins by arguing that prison growth is an overstated problem. While Foote agrees with a number of policy proposals supported by his colleagues — including those aimed at marijuana and driving sentences — he points out that the state has a low incarceration rate "but a high cost per day/per inmate." So why not try to cut costs before cutting sentences?

Foote, as one might expect, also disagrees with proposals to relax sentences established by Measures 11 and 57, which voters approved overwhelmingly in 1994 and 2008, respectively.

The same basic disagreements will surface when lawmakers consider various cost-cutting options next year. Should they seek to adjust criminal sentences approved by voters, and if so in what manner? Should they focus less on sentences and devote more time to underlying costs, including those related to employee compensation and inmate health care? Or should they approve small-bore proposals on which everyone seems to agree and move on?

Unless lawmakers duck, the debate will be heated, worthwhile and, for those of us who enjoy the process, highly entertaining. One potential pitfall awaits, however. While changes to Measures 11 and 57 are fair game, legislators should send them back to voters for approval. To do otherwise is to invite a sparring match with their constituents, the results of which are unlikely to entertain anyone.


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