Some were skeptical when Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed a Public Safety Commission to explore ways to reduce prison costs through sentencing reform. Now the results of the first year of the resulting changes are in, and the savings appear to be real.
After Oregon voters passed Measure 11, the mandatory minimum sentencing law, in 1994, the state's prison population soared. The number of prisoners behind bars doubled after 1995, from 7,000 to 14,000, and was projected to add 2,000 more by 2023, requiring the state to add prison space at a cost of $600 million. Another get-tough-on-crime initiative, Measure 57, passed in 2008, added prison time for repeat drug and property offenses,
The Public Safety Commission's analysis found Oregon’s incarceration rate grew eight times faster than the national average between 2001 and 2011. Drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals were spending more time behind bars, and more were being sent to prison in the first place, while violent offenders were being imprisoned at about the same rate they had been. Meanwhile, community corrections and other local programs designed to reduce recidivism suffered budget cuts.
After the commission presented its recommendations to the 2013 Legislature, lawmakers passed a series of sentencing reforms focusing on prison time for those most dangerous to society while limiting prison time for nonviolent offenders in favor of community supervision. Money was directed to the counties in the form of grants to beef up community corrections, re-entry programs for released prisoners, and substance abuse and mental health treatment.
The long-term projected savings were impressive, but projections don't always come true. The first year of the new approach, however, shows the commission was on the right track. State prison officials now expect the reforms will save $17 million in the current budget cycle and $64 million in the 2015-17 biennium. Plans to build new prison capacity have been scrapped.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided technical assistance to the commission, Oregon's prison population has stabilized, and state officials project growth of only 4 percent in the next 10 years — a third of the projected growth before the reforms. Long-term, the reforms are expected to reduce prison growth by 870 beds and save state taxpayers $326 million by the end of 2023.
The commission — and the lawmakers from both parties who came together to enact the reforms — deserve credit for using correction dollars in ways that are cost-effective, not just politically popular.