SALEM, Ore. – Governor John Kitzhaber says Oregon can save millions of dollars a year by changing the way the state punishes non-violent criminals. The Democrat has included those savings in his next spending plan. But just how the state would save that much money is not yet clear.
When Kitzhaber rolled out his budget proposal at the capitol, he took certain options off the table when it comes to cutting prison costs.
"We're not talking about violent offenders. We're not talking about sex offenders," the governor said. "We're talking about that group of people, non-violent offenders. And I think there's a whole host of ways this can be done. And it's just something we have to take on."
But Kitzhaber didn't offer up any details on how to revamp Oregon’s criminal justice system. He's leaving that part to his Commission on Public Safety. The blue-ribbon panel has a daunting task: Avert a predicted wave of more than 2,000 prisoners over the next decade.
Democratic Representative Chris Garrett is on the panel. He says the group hasn't yet decided what those proposals will be.
"Some of them are going to be modest. Some will be pretty ambitious. It will be for the legislature to figure out what the political will is, but I do believe that there is the political will to make some serious and fiscally significant changes to the system."
Some lawmakers are concerned that those changes would involve scaling back criminal sentencing laws. That would require a two-thirds vote in the legislature and both parties would have to be on board.
Incoming House Republican leader Mike McLane doubts that will happen.
"Anything that is going to try to trump what the voters have demanded we do is going to be tough for me to support."
But one prominent House Republican, retired state trooper Andy Olson, says it might be worth at least taking a look at mandatory sentencing laws. Not for violent crimes, he says, but…"Let's talk about discretion, returning discretion back to the courts for somebody who does a property crime, who's a repeat offender along that line."
But Olson says he'd need the support of the law enforcement community before he'd agree to back any reductions in mandatory sentences. Part of the equation is what alternatives the legislature comes up with.
The idea isn’t to let car thieves and burglars off scot-free, says Public Safety Commission member Dick Withnell. The car dealership owner has been involved in public safety issues in Salem for many years.
"I mean, does it make sense to incarcerate someone for a non-violent crime who has a family, who has a job, and all of this and stick him in jail for five years. No, we want accountability but we have a lot of things that can be done in the community."
Such as community service or more rigorous probation requirements. There’s also an idea out of South Carolina to loosen probation requirements, especially the technical ones.
Gerald Malloy is a Democratic state senator there. He came to Oregon to consult with policy-makers on the issue. He says South Carolina figured out they could save money by not sending parolees back to prison for, say, failing to update their address.
“If I’m staying with my uncle instead of having my own address, what crime is that against society. Or maybe, better yet, I don’t have a job yet. And so the fact that I don’t have a job, should that be a revocation of my probation?”
Requirements for criminals on probation aren’t necessarily the same in Oregon as in South Carolina. Still, Oregon prison officials say about 10 percent of all inmates who entered a prison last year arrived there because of a technical violation of their probation. But even if there are low-hanging fruit in cutting corrections costs, lawmakers in Salem still face a very clear political equation: Oregon voters approved mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in 1994 and then again in 2008.
Howard Rodstein with the group Crime Victims United is telling lawmakers public opinion hasn’t changed.
"I think they should respect the wishes of the voters of Oregon.”
Lawmakers will find out what cost-cutting ideas are on the table when the Governor’s Commission on Public Safety releases its recommendations later this month.
On the Web:
Oregon Commission on Public Safety (Oregon.gov)