Prisons and Sentencing

Holding offenders accountable

A new urban legend is infecting Salem. It's being spread by imported academics and swallowed whole by some policymakers on both sides of the aisle and by some journalists. This myth will have profound effects on the quality of life for all Oregonians.

The myth is about prisons and sentencing, and it goes something like this: Oregon has engaged in a wholesale orgy of spending on prisons, which has left schoolchildren to fend for themselves. It also claims that our current justice system is hellbent on vengeance, and that teenage car thieves and addled addicts unlucky enough to get caught with a quarter gram of meth end up jailed together for irrationally longer prison terms.

Reality check: No matter how violent or serious the offense, virtually no one younger than 18 is in an adult correctional facility, and Oregon judges can't send a drug user to prison even after 20 convictions. Oregonians spend about 56 cents of each tax dollar on education and about 9 cents for corrections. Oregon is 34th in the nation in per-capita incarceration. Measure 11 has never applied to drug dealers, burglars or repeat property felons.

Oregon did indeed build more prisons in the last 20 years than the 80 years preceding. We were so smug in our belief that "hug-a-thug" was right that Oregon was in the lowest 10 percent of all states in its incarceration rates. The average murderer sentenced to life might have served eight years in prison, and it was commonplace for rapists given 20 years to serve less than three. Violent crime was epidemic in Oregon as the '80s came to a close.

Voters acted when the Oregon Legislature refused by passing Measure 11. Voters were convinced that truth in sentencing would make our communities safer. They were right. For most of the last decade Oregon enjoyed the largest reduction of violent crime of any state.

We must now focus on property crime, where we rank fourth worst among all states. The state's district attorneys have worked with the governor and the Department of Corrections to develop a policy that begins to hold repeat property offenders accountable. Their proposal would also limit eligibility to the Alternative Incarceration Program -- properly criticized last August by The Oregonian for cutting sentences in half or more -- to ensure it is available only to nonviolent offenders.

This proposal is nearly universally endorsed. Yet it is not likely to gain passage. Why? Some state policymakers demand that any increases in sentencing be offset by comparable reductions in Oregon's successful sentencing system. The phrase bandied around Salem is "revenue neutral," a requirement that apparently applies only to public safety and means that if we add six months to a chronic burglar's sentence, we have to cut another felon's sentence the same amount.

This demand makes absolutely no sense. Oregonians should not be forced to compromise reductions in violent victimization to protect themselves from ID thefts, car clouts and burglaries.

In 1994, Oregonians passed Measure 11 because they were sick of violence in their communities and tired of inaction by policymakers. If the Legislature does not act, voters may again use the blunt tool of the initiative process to enact change.