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Don't scuttle sentencing reform plan

Oregon lawmakers took a courageous step two years ago aimed at slowing the growth in the state's prison population to save money and to prevent released prisoners from re-offending. Now, an unexpected increase in longer sentences and revoked probations threatens to undermine the reforms. State officials should resist the temptation to spend money on new prison beds that was intended to keep people out of prison.

Before the 2013 sentencing reform legislation, Oregon was facing huge costs for new prison construction to accommodate a burgeoning prison population. Taking an approach that had been proven to work in Texas and other states, the reforms enacted in 2013 included reducing some sentences for nonviolent property and drug crimes while increasing grant funding to county corrections programs aimed at keeping offenders out of prison.

The community reinvestment fund sent $14 million in grants to counties in 2013-2014, and would provide $40 million in 2015-2017. But now some lawmakers are considering dipping into that $40 million to pay for new beds at the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.

Gov. Kate Brown has urged lawmakers, corrections officials and counties to find other ways to stem the flow of prisoners and avoid the prison expansion. So far, that has taken the form of a request from the Criminal Justice Commission to counties to send fewer inmates to state prisons each month. Southwest Oregon counties, including Jackson, were asked to send a total of five fewer prisoners, four male and one female.

That means keeping those prisoners in county jails at county expense. It also penalizes Jackson County, which has been a leader in innovative programs such as drug court and mental health court, designed to offer alternatives to prison for defendants who qualify.

Meanwhile, the reforms enacted in 2013 are working. State prison officials say reinvestment grants have saved $19 million in prison costs already.

If new beds must be created to accommodate this unexpected surge in prison population, lawmakers should make every effort to find the money somewhere else. Reducing reinvestment grants now will mean more people headed for prison later, and the state will be right back where it started.