Oregon lawmakers consider mandatory minimum change

Of the Associated Press

SALEM — Oregon legislators are beginning to scrutinize a sentencing reform bill that proponents say could save the state more than $600 million in prison costs, but opponents of the legislation contend current policies have helped discourage criminals.

The Joint Committee on Public Safety was to begin hearing testimony late Wednesday on the legislation that would scale back Oregon's mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The legislation was developed from a 2012 report by the governor's Commission on Public Safety that found the state's growing prison population unsustainable in the long-term. The commission said without changes Oregon will need to build about 2,000 additional prison beds over the next decade, which could cost the state more than $600 million.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and other advocates want the Legislature to reduce the time that certain offenders spend in prison to slow the growth of prisons and prevent the need for more space to house inmates. Most controversially, they want lawmakers to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses.

Over the last 15 years, public safety spending has sharply increased and now consumes a larger share of the state's budget, crowding out spending on education and human services, the commission report found.

“If you are unwilling to act on this issue, we will, by default, be choosing prisons over schools,” Kitzhaber told lawmakers during his annual state of the state speech in January.

Backers of the legislation say certain offenders can be effectively monitored in sentencing programs that cost much less than prisons.

The proposal has drawn opposition from some in the law-enforcement community. They say Kitzhaber is overstating the problem and Oregon's sentencing policies have been effective at reducing crime.

“We don't have to reinvent the wheel or tear apart a system that's been successful,” said John Foote, Clackamas County district attorney.

Foote pointed to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center suggesting Oregon had the lowest reported recidivism rate among 41 states surveyed. He has proposed changes that would reduce sentences for some nonviolent crimes but would not touch mandatory minimum sentences.

Sorting through the debate will be the task of the Joint Committee on Public Safety, created by legislative leaders to shepherd sentencing discussions.

The committee is looking at a bill that would make changes to Measure 11, a 1994 voter-approved initiative that created mandatory minimum sentences for some violent crimes. The bill would remove mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of certain sex abuse, assault and robbery crimes.

The bill could morph substantially before it reaches the full House and Senate. But without any changes to sentencing policy, the need for new prisons is undeniable, said Rep. Andy Olson, a Republican from Albany and former Oregon State Police lieutenant.

“If we do nothing with that, more than likely, we will be building some new prisons,” Olson said.

Changing Measure 11 would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, so the measure could not pass on a party-line vote. Rolling back the voter-approved law presents a tough political decision for lawmakers who are wary of casting votes that could be perceived as soft on crime.

Another sticking point in the debate is the rate at which the prison population is growing.

The Office of Economic Analysis released a report Monday that affirmed Oregon's prison population is growing, albeit at a slightly slower pace than previously projected.

The report predicted that Oregon's prison population will increase from just over 14,300 to around 16,400 by 2023. That's around 100 fewer inmates than the previous forecast in October.

Foote says this proves the numbers are unreliable. Olson said the prison forecast is an important barometer for the state, but shouldn't drive the policy debate.

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