Who's soft on crime?

Not lawmakers who want smarter sentencing rules to save money

As a package of proposed changes to criminal sentencing laws makes its way through the Legislature, one small element out of many in the bill threatens to hold up the entire effort: removing three crimes from the list of mandatory minimum sentences under Ballot Measure 11.

Never mind that House Bill 3194 proposes no changes to 19 of the 22 crimes on the list. Never mind that judges would still have the power to impose harsh sentences for the three crimes in question when the facts warranted. Measure 11 was passed by voters, and lawmakers are leery of being seen as defying the will of the voters, even when it makes sense to do so. The change in sentencing rules also requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.

Oregon spends $1.3 billion on prisons every two years. Projected growth in the prison population will add $600 million over the next 10 years if nothing is done.

After more than a year of work, a special commission appointed by the governor recommended a variety of changes to sentencing rules and policies designed to limit the growth in the prison population while doing a better job of preventing convicts from re-offending after they are released — in other words, making Oregonians safer while spending less money.

One of those changes would take second-degree assault, second-degree robbery and first-degree sex abuse off the Measure 11 list.

Why those three crimes? Unlike other Measure 11 crimes, the circumstances that lead to a charge under any of these three can vary so widely that they amount to very different crimes, but judges are not allowed to impose different sentences.

Second-degree assault can range from hitting someone with a shoe to beating a victim nearly to death. Second-degree robbery can range from pushing a victim to the ground and stealing his cellphone to holding an unloaded gun to a person's head and demanding money. First-degree sex abuse can range from an adult patting the clothed buttocks of a 13-year-old to a forcible sexual act short of rape.

The point is not to diminish the seriousness of any of these acts, but to note that the sentence should be proportional to the severity.

Giving judges the ability to impose less than that current mandatory minimum sentences in the less severe cases would help save taxpayers the $85-a-day expense of locking up offenders longer than necessary while still allowing longer sentences for the more serious cases.

Every dollar spent to build, equip and staff prisons is a dollar that isn't available for community corrections, post-prison supervision, treatment for mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse — all programs that have seen their funding cut in recent years. National studies and the experience of other states have shown that those programs are far more cost-effective for many offenders.

And yet this minor change in Measure 11 is having trouble gaining support from lawmakers who are afraid they'll be labeled "soft on crime."

As Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, co-chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Safety, told The Oregonian, "Keeping Measure 11 as it is, is a soft-on-crime vote."

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