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Oregon voters face get-tough crime measures in the fall general election

Although crime rates in the state have been edging downward for years, Oregon voters in November face a pair of "get tough" ballot measures that would put thousands more property and drug offenders in prison, costing hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Voters will have to take a hard look at the connection between property crimes and drug use and ask questions about whether stiffer mandatory sentences will reduce crime, said Craig Prins, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, in a talk to a Southern Oregon University criminology class.

Two measures, Initiative Petition 40 and Senate Bill 1087, aim at tougher mandatory prison time for the offenses, but 1087 would offer drug treatment programs, with shorter sentences for those who complete them. If both bills pass, the one with the most votes becomes law.

Initiative Petition 40, put on the ballot by former state Republican chairman and past gubernatorial/congressional candidate Kevin Mannix, would provide minimum sentences of at least three years, depending on previous record and the severity of the offense, for ID theft, home burglary or making or dealing heroin, meth, cocaine or ecstasy.

It would have applied to 4,900 offenders if it were in effect in 2006, said Prins, with costs in the range of $250 million to $400 million in prison and court expenses. SB 1087, favored by associations of district attorneys, chiefs of police and sheriffs, would affect 1,900 people if in place two years ago, and would have cost $100 million for incarceration and $40 million for treatment, said Prins, adding that as a state employee, he is not allowed to express his preference on political issues.

SOU criminology teacher Lee Ayers emphasized that SB 1087 would incarcerate 400 more women, while IP40 would put 1,300 females behind bars and, she told her students, "you have to ask yourself, where are the children (of the jailed mothers) going to go?"

Ayers, in an interview, said "Researchers feel Oregon is not tough enough "¦ and 'get tough' measures usually pass."

Oregon has 13,600 incarcerated offenders — or one in every 272 Oregonians. With the new sentencing measure in place, Prins estimates the jailed population will rise to 16,420 by 2012, requiring three new prisons — one of them planned for the White City-northeast Medford area.

That prison is already sited and eventually will be built regardless of the public vote on the measures, said Prins, noting that passage would accelerate the process. No date for groundbreaking has been set.

The legislative measure is based on research showing that among repeat property offenders, more than 80 percent are addicts and "these drug-addicted persons present a danger to public safety by committing crimes to feed their addictions," according to the bill.

The bill says the state will provide grants to counties to help with costs of local jails and treatment services for addicts on parole and probation.

Prins said "it's surprising to most people" that in both Oregon and the U.S., the rate of property crimes and violent crimes has trended downward in the past 15 years.

While noting that he believes there is a connection between drug crime and property crime, Prins pointed to a "law of diminishing marginal returns," found in economics and stating that if one Starbucks is successful, another one built nearby won't be as successful because the first one captured the main body of customers.

"As you jail more people, you jail the serious ones early and the crime reduction benefits diminish," said Prins.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.