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Course correction

A report last week from the state of Oregon saying that state prison populations are expected to grow only 2 percent over the next decade was a shot of good news for taxpayers.

Better yet, it offered additional evidence that the state is on the right track in its efforts to move inmates into community-based correctional programs, which typically are far more effective than state prisons, both in terms of the price tag and the rate of recidivism.

The state report, from the Office of Economic Analysis, concluded that Oregon's prison population will grow by fewer than 300 inmates over the next 10 years. That 2 percent growth estimate is the smallest increase anyone in the state correctional system could recall. (It's worth noting, however, that the projection still calls for the state to house more than 15,000 inmates by 2024.)

The upside for taxpayers: The revised estimate suggests that the state likely will not need to build a new prison near Junction City, as had been planned.

And it's a 50-50 chance that the state won't need to open a medium-security wing at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution near Madras, as once was projected. That wing never has been used, and it's obviously cheaper to keep it mothballed than to open it. In fact, it costs an average of $87 a day to house inmates in the state system.

Give the credit to House Bill 3194, passed by the 2013 Legislature, which reduces sentences for certain drug and property crimes. It also lowers penalties for some driving with suspended license violations and marijuana-related charges.

The measure could save the state some $17 million over the two-year budget cycle; the idea is to reinvest some of the savings into those community-based programs. (It's also worth noting that this is part of the reason why Linn County law-enforcement officials want to reopen a wing of the Linn County Jail.)

Albany Rep. Andy Olson was one of the key players in shepherding House Bill 3194 through the Legislature. No one ever has accused Olson, a former Oregon State Police officer, of being soft on crime, but he was worried that the explosive growth in the state prison population was unsustainable.

Now that it looks as if House Bill 3194 is starting to pay off, it remains important that state officials fulfill their part of the bargain, by being sure that local jurisdictions have the resources to run effective correctional programs.

It won't do us any good to shortchange programs we need to succeed if we're to have any chance at wrestling our correctional system back under control.