Oregon Department of Corrections
Oregon will invest another $40 million over the next two years on incentives to counties to reduce prison use for drug and property crimes.
Along with the local grants, the state will also lessen the presumptive prison sentences for people convicted of theft and identity theft and expand short-term transitional leave so inmates can get out of prison sooner. The first-time penalty for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs will drop from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The grant money and the sentencing reforms are elements of justice reinvestment — an initiative to contain the growth of prison spending and lower the number of convicts who commit new crimes after they are released. Counties are encouraged to supervise more offenders locally, through probation, parole and county jails, and identify the ones who need treatment for drug and alcohol abuse or counseling for mental health problems.
Clatsop County has had among the highest rates of prison use for drug and property crimes per capita since justice reinvestment began in 2013. District Attorney Josh Marquis, one of the initiative’s most persistent critics, said he might join a legal challenge against the latest round of sentencing changes.
Oregon will spend more than $1.7 billion on prisons in the two-year budget cycle, an expense that has convinced many state policy experts that prison should be reserved for violent criminals.
“I honestly believe we are investing way too much money in our prison system, and we’re not investing in people anymore,” said state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, one of the chief sponsors of the bill approved by the Legislature to reduce theft and identity theft sentences and expand short-term transitional leave. “Sadly enough, we have a greater divide, every single day, between the rich and the poor. And the investment in human beings — that actual human capital — is decreasing.”
Slow the spike
The bill, awaiting Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, would lower presumptive prison sentences for theft and identity theft to 13 months, down from 18 months. Lawmakers hope the change, along with an alternative sentencing pilot program aimed at women offenders with children, will slow the spike in prison use among women and help avoid opening a second women’s prison.
Under the bill, prisoners would also be eligible for short-term transitional leave 120 days before their scheduled release dates, up from 90 days.
Marquis, in an email, characterized the bill as “hocking a huge loogie into the face of Oregon’s voters” who passed Measure 57 in 2008. The measure, a compromise supported by Marquis and other district attorneys, increased prison sentences for drug and property crimes. It was an alternative to a competing measure that would have set mandatory minimum prison sentences, like the state does for convictions for violent crimes.
Marquis said state lawmakers have whittled away at Measure 57, undermining voter intent. The district attorney also stresses that recidivism — people who commit new crimes after they are released from prison — still hovers around 40 percent.
“If all this ‘hug-a-thug’ is working so well, why is recidivism so bad?” Marquis asks.
Another bill passed by the Legislature is intended to address racial profiling by police and the racial disparities in convictions for drug crimes. The bill would downgrade the first-time possession of small amounts of heroin, meth and other illegal drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Marquis predicts that relaxing the penalties for drug possession will weaken the incentive for people to choose drug court — a path that promotes treatment — since they will no longer be facing a felony. The district attorney said the bill is like “sending up the white flag in surrender to the two most insidious and dangerous drugs in our society — meth and heroin.”
The Daily Astorian reported in March that Clatsop County was among the top five in prison use for drug and property crimes above a state baseline created by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to track justice reinvestment.
Judge Paula Brownhill, the presiding judge of the Circuit Court, formed a work group to examine some of the factors that contribute to the county’s prison use. The work group is made up of Brownhill, Marquis, Judge Dawn McIntosh, Lt. Matt Phillips at the county jail, trial court administrator Lee Merrill, and defense attorney Kirk Wintermute.
Judge Brownhill said in an email that the work group is developing procedures for a new pretrial release program, which could take effect in September. “When we finish pretrial release, we’ll decide if there is any need for the work group to continue,” she said.
Lt. Phillips, in an email, explained that the pretrial release program is being designed to help the Sheriff’s Office better manage the inmate population at the county jail and provide monitoring of the offenders who are released.
The county’s 60-bed jail in Astoria is chronically overcrowded. Often, as many as 70 percent of inmates at the jail are awaiting trial. One of the concepts behind justice reinvestment is for counties to supervise more offenders locally, but that is difficult when the jail is constantly at capacity.
County commissioners authorized the Parole and Probation Division to add a specialist and a corrections deputy for the pretrial release and alternative custody program using justice reinvestment and state grant-in-aid money.
“The pretrial release program will evaluate arrestees’ risk to the community and make recommendations to the court,” Phillips said. “Risk and the current charge the arrestee is facing will largely determine the level of monitoring the individual will receive while on pretrial release. Some individuals will be identified as being too great a risk to the community for release and will stay in custody.”