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Panel hears testimony on minimum sentencing bill

SALEM — An Oregon legislative committee heard testimony from the public Wednesday on legislation that would scale back the state's mandatory minimum sentencing laws known as Measure 11.

The Joint Committee on Public Safety, created by legislative leaders to shepherd sentencing discussions, heard two hours of testimony but took no action on the measure. Another public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Friday.

The bill would make changes to Measure 11, a 1994 voter-approved initiative that created mandatory minimum sentences for some violent crimes. The bill would remove mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of certain sex abuse, assault and robbery crimes.

Proponents of the legislation say it would save the state more than $600 million in prison costs, and that certain offenders can be effectively monitored in sentencing programs that cost much less than prisons.

"We can still hold people accountable while making modest adjustments to their sentences," Paul Solomon, executive director of Sponsors, a transitional housing program, told lawmakers.

Solomon said rehabilitation and prevention programs such as his are cost-effective ways of reducing crime and recidivism. Under the bill, such programs could qualify for state funding.

But opponents contend current policies have helped discourage criminals.

"We should keep one of the few areas of government that is working exactly as it should intact," Washington County Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey told lawmakers.

The legislation was developed from a 2012 report by the governor's Commission on Public Safety that found the state's growing prison population unsustainable in the long-term. The commission said without changes, Oregon will need to build about 2,000 additional prison beds over the next decade, which could cost the state more than $600 million.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and other advocates want the Legislature to reduce the time that certain offenders spend in prison to slow the growth of prison populations and prevent the need for more space to house inmates. Most controversially, they want lawmakers to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses.

Over the past 15 years, public safety spending has sharply increased and now consumes a larger share of the state's budget, crowding out spending on education and human services, the commission report found.

The bill could morph substantially before it reaches the full House and Senate. But without any changes to sentencing policy, the need for new prisons is undeniable, said Rep. Andy Olson, a Republican from Albany and former Oregon State Police lieutenant.

"If we do nothing with that, more than likely, we will be building some new prisons," Olson said.

Changing Measure 11 would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.

Another sticking point in the debate is the rate at which the prison population is growing.

The Office of Economic Analysis released a report Monday that affirmed Oregon's prison population is growing, albeit at a slightly slower pace than previously projected.

The report predicted that Oregon's prison population will increase from just over 14,300 to around 16,400 by 2023. That's around 100 fewer inmates than the previous forecast in October.

Some district attorneys said that proves the numbers are unreliable.

Olson said the prison forecast is an important barometer for the state, but shouldn't drive the policy debate.