Clatsop Countys advisory council on public safety has weighed in on proposed reforms to Oregons prison sentencing.
In a letter sent to the Public Safety Committee in the Oregon Legislature, the Public Safety Coordinating Council expressed concerns about House Bill 3194, that would change mandatory minimum sentences for sex abusers and other violent offenders.
At its last meeting, the advisory council also endorsed a separate letter by the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police that stated similar objections to the bill.
Although there are some positive proposals in House Bill 3194, we share the concerns about changing the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions under Measure 11 and 57, the letter by the PSCC states.
State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she agrees with the PSCC, and stated she has grave concerns about the bill and a lack of transparency that followed its development.
House Bill 3194 would modify sentences imposed for felony marijuana charges and driving while suspended, but would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes, which were adopted with Measure 11 and 57 by Oregon voters.
As a representative of the PSCC, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis spoke at the Board of Clatsop County Commissioners last meeting, telling them that the bill was ill advised and its rapid development has made it an urgent matter.
The bill is being championed as a way to cut down on the cost of Oregons prison system, which will see an estimated increase in the prison population by more than 2,000 inmates in the next 10 years. Proposed reforms are projected to save the state $600 million in the next 10 years, keeping down the inmate population and avoiding the need to build another prison.
In front of the Clatsop County board, Marquis said that parts of the bill make sense, but that the essential gutting of Measure 11 was not appropriate.
There certainly can be reform in the criminal justice system its a work in progress, he said.
Low incarceration rates
But Marquis said that the Oregon prison system is among the lowest in overall incarceration rates, as evidenced in a recent article by Nigel Jaquiss in Willamette Week, and reprinted in The Daily Astorian.
The article touched on a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics study that found Oregon incarcerates the highest percentage of violent offenders among the 33 states that keep that kind of data and the lowest rate of nonviolent offenders.
The claim that we are on some unsustainable path is simply not true, Marquis said about the amount of prison beds that are available.
We need not build another prison for at least 10 years, he said.
Gov. John Kitzhabers Public Safety Commission and the Pew Center on the States studied Oregons prison data and looked for ways to implement reforms that worked in other states.
House Bill 3194 was one result after looking at the numbers. Another, House Bill 3195, championed by Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, does not affect Measure 11 while still calling for other reforms.
The letter from Oregon sheriffs and chiefs of police states that changes should not be made based only on state savings or reinvestment, but rather on policies that work.
Front-end, community-based and evidence-based corrections policies are good for Oregon because they work, not because they are cheaper than a penitentiary, the letter states. Public safety reform should be driven by thoughtful policy and not based on cost savings.
We need to shift the focus to what is the real problem
The PSCC, which is co-chaired by Circuit Court Judge Cindee Matyas and Janet Evans, the Clatsop County juvenile department director, wrote in its letter that if the reform put more pressure on county resources it would be disastrous.
Dismantling a criminal justice system which, in many respects, is working here in Oregon and placing more supervision responsibility on local county jails without adequate beds, funding or resources is a recipe for disaster, the advisory council wrote.
At the last commissioners meeting, Chairman Peter Huhtala thanked Marquis for presenting the advisory councils concerns. Commissioner Sarah Nebeker, who is on the advisory council, stated her own concerns about possible reforms.
We need to look at us as a state, as a society. Do we want to fund early childhood education enough so that we have a lower rate of incarceration? Nebeker asked.
Other societies pay more for education and have lower rates of incarceration, she said.
It just seems to me that we need to shift the focus to what is the real problem, Nebeker said. It isnt the problem with the prison system or incarceration rates. Thats just a way of getting money for a worthy cause. But thats maybe not what we want to do.
She said she believed there was a better solution for saving money than one that would take away from public safety.
The bill is still in committee in the Oregon Legislature. It would take a two-thirds vote in the Oregon Legislature to modify Measure 11. Oregon voters passed Measure 11 in 1994 and upheld the ballot measure in 2000, overwhelmingly defeating a repeal effort.