Oregon legislative panel passes public safety bill

Legislation is aimed at reducing growing prison population

SALEM — An Oregon legislative committee tasked with flat-lining the state's growing prison population advanced a revised bill Monday that committee members say will meet that goal for the next five years.

The Joint Committee on Public Safety passed House Bill 3194 with one lawmaker dissenting. The legislation reflects nearly two years of work by lawmakers and members of the governor's Commission on Public Safety that produced a report that found the state's growing prison population unsustainable in the long term.

The original bill would have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for offenders who commit three violent crimes. Amid backlash from law enforcement, later drafts of the bill have been significantly watered down.

Among other changes, the draft of the bill unveiled and approved Monday would reduce sentences for certain drug and property crimes. The bill would also lower penalties for some driving with a suspended license and marijuana-related charges. These policy changes would expire after 10 years.

"This is a long negotiated resolution that goes farther than some people would think appropriate and doesn't go as far as others would like," said Rep. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, who helped broker the deal.

Garrett said the policy changes will hold prison growth for the next five years, generating a savings of nearly $17 million over the next two years.

The savings from the policy changes would be reinvested into community corrections programs that drive down recidivism and keep people out of prison. Garrett added that budget writers intend to raise additional funding for local programs.

Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, said the Legislature would have to revisit this discussion in five years if the changes are unsuccessful.

Despite their support for the bill, some lawmakers expressed disappointment it didn't go further to overhaul criminal sentencing for juveniles.

"Part of justice is helping people change their ways and grow and I think we have a ways to go with some of our adolescents," said Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay.

Sen. Betsy Close, R-Albany, told lawmakers she couldn't support the measure because it overturned parts of a law approved by voters.

The proposal falls short of Gov. John Kitzhaber's initial goal to flatten prison growth over the next 10 years. But the Democratic governor applauded the committee's progress.

"I'm encouraged by the collaboration among stakeholders to challenge the status quo and come up with a comprehensive public safety package," Kitzhaber said in a statement.

The measure goes next to the House floor.

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