by Joshua Marquis and Doug Harcleroad
printed in the Eugene Register-Guard
October 17, 2005
Citizen lobbyists Anne and Bruce Pratt struck a nerve with their unusually candid Sept. 27 guest viewpoint about their efforts to lobby the 2005 Oregon Legislature.
In a pair of responses, Arwen Bird of the Western Prison Project (Register-Guard, Oct. 3) and Portland-area state Reps. Mitch Greenlick and Chip Shields (Register-Guard, Oct. 10) wrote that a bill that would have enhanced penalties for repeat-killer drunken drivers (House Bill 2828) failed because it represented bad policy. We believe that Greenlick's and Shields' views are not shared by the vast majority of their legislative colleagues or Oregon voters.
The bill that the Pratts, whose son was killed by a drunken driver, helped write would have called for a 20-year prison sentence if it were the second time the driver had been convicted of killing one or more people with his car while drunk or high.
Unfortunately, that's not a hypothetical. In 1999, James Willie, while driving on the Sunset Highway near Seaside, high on a cocktail of illegal drugs, slammed his car into Martin Ferlitch's vehicle. Martin and his 12-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer, were killed. It wasn't the first time Willie had been convicted of killing people. In 1977, he was sentenced for causing the death of two people while drunk and served less than two years in prison.
As longtime prosecutors in Oregon, we have watched as the violent crime rate has plummeted over the last 10 years. Last year, USA Today rated each state's improvements in public health. Oregon was applauded for its reductions in violent crimes.
We believe much of that reduction can be attributed to Oregon voters passing and then reaffirming Measure 11, which ensures that those who commit the worst of violent felonies and sexual offenses against children actually go to prison, usually for six to eight years. Does anyone believe that the violent rape of a child deserves anything less than eight years in prison?
Another major reason violent crime is down is the move toward truth-in-sentencing laws which help to assure that a criminal will actually serve at least 80 percent of the sentence handed down by the judge.
To those who would have you believe Oregon has become a penal colony, it should be noted that Oregon has an incarceration rate lower than almost two-thirds of the other 49 states. Of our state tax dollar, eight cents is spent on prisons and another seven cents pays for judges, police, public defenders and a tiny slice of the budget of prosecutors' offices. (The bulk, 56 cents, pays for education.)
Crime strikes at all parts of our community and disproportionately hits our most vulnerable citizens, particularly women, children and people of color. A balanced criminal justice system needs a wide array of tools including probation, treatment and incarceration. Almost 75 percent of people who are convicted of felonies receive probationary, not prison, sentences; therefore, it is particularly important that we provide sufficient incentive for probationers to comply with treatment, sobriety and the other programs that attempt to steer them away from future crime. Without adequate jail beds at the county level or prison beds at the state level, the threat of future imprisonment often rings hollow. Criminals quickly learn there is little consequence for their misconduct.
As district attorneys, we stand to gain nothing by increasing the prison population. We don't get bigger budgets or salaries based on the number of criminals we lock up. We have advocated for a system of accountability because it is just and sensible public policy.
Criminals and criminal defendants have skillful and well-funded advocates in Arwen Bird and Chip Shields. The dead don't have as well financed a lobby, so we try to speak for them and remind our legal system that it exists to dispense justice to all citizens, not just those accused of crime.
Doug Harcleroad is Lane County district attorney.