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Unpleasant choices

Cutting government budgets can be harder than it looks, and sometimes the savings come with unintended consequences.

As an example, take the bill lawmakers passed this year to shave $6 million from the Department of Corrections by releasing low-risk prisoners early, saving $84 a day per prisoner. The benefits are substantial: preserve 24-hour patrols by state troopers, keep open a juvenile detention center that otherwise would close, and maintain services designed to reduce domestic and sexual violence.

As it turns out, lawmakers were a bit hasty in drawing up the list of those inmates eligible for early release. While most prisoners serving time for violent crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping are barred from getting out early, some with histories of violence against people have slipped through the cracks.

For instance, an inmate convicted of carjacking a motorist at gunpoint and the related but nonviolent crime of stealing the car could be released under the bill if he completed his full sentence for armed robbery and was serving a consecutive sentence for car theft.

Also eligible for release under the bill are offenders convicted of some crimes that were not included, such as assaulting a police officer, third-degree robbery and incest. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a chief sponsor, says he wants the Legislature to add about 20 such crimes to the list of disqualifying offenses when lawmakers convene their special session in February.

Prozanski calls the omitted crimes "an oversight." That's putting it mildly, but it certainly can be fixed, and it should be.

Meanwhile, it's important to put this situation in perspective. The fact is, every state prison inmate will be released eventually unless he is serving a life sentence.

In one case examined by The Oregonian newspaper, an inmate who gave a 16-year-old girl alcohol and marijuana and then sexually assaulted her was granted an early release under the bill. In a plea bargain with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to furnishing drugs to a minor and second-degree sex abuse in exchange for a sentence of 55 months.

He was eligible to be considered for release because those crimes are less serious than the counts he might have been convicted of if the case had gone to trial. His sentence was reduced by 18 days — out of a sentence of nearly 1,000 days.

He would have been on the street in less than three weeks anyway. And those 18 days saved $1,512.

That doesn't make the victim, her family, or the public feel any better, nor should it.

But Oregonians must confront these kinds of choices when expenses outstrip available revenue. And lawmakers may have even worse options to choose from when they return to Salem in February if voters reject $733 million in tax increases at the polls on Jan. 26.

State agencies last week laid out the cuts they would have to make if the tax measures go down. The Department of Corrections' worst-case scenario calls for closing six prisons and releasing 8,169 inmates.