Friday, May 30, 2008
In 1994 Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed Measure 11. An effort to repeal the law in 2000 was rejected by a resounding 75 percent of voters. You'd think the message would be clear: Oregonians want there to be truth in sentencing. Still, opponents of the law want to take another swipe.
Oregonians are again facing an onslaught of propaganda that seeks to persuade us to believe several myths, frightful urban legends that have been pressed in many a newspaper editorial, including in The Oregonian.
First myth: Measure 11 squanders our children's future by turning Oregon into a penal colony. We spend more money locking up people than educating them. One recent study by the Pew Center found that Oregon spends more money on prisons than higher ed -- more than any other state.
The truth: About 58 cents of every state tax dollar funds education (K through higher education), and about 9 cents funds our corrections departments and facilities. Barely 2 of those 9 cents are spent on Measure 11 offenders. The Pew Center study included the nearly quarter-billion dollars the state of Oregon spends to fund local probation -- a cost that's picked up by municipalities and counties in most other states -- and it didn't include the state's support of Oregon Health & Science University or its many community colleges.
Second myth: Measure 11 has filled our prisons with doe-eyed first-time pot smokers.
The truth: More than 60 percent of all the 13,000-odd inmates in state custody are there for violent or crimes against people. Fewer than 25 percent of people convicted of a felony are sentenced to prison; the rest are put on probation.
Measure 11 offenses include the higher degrees of homicide -- excluding criminally negligent homicide -- and more serious sex felonies such as rape and child molestation. It doesn't include any degree of burglary, even home-invasion burglary, nor any drug offenses, not even furnishing methamphetamine to minors.
Third myth (as claimed in the 1994 effort to defeat Measure 11): Measure 11 will overwhelm Oregon's prisons with 6,000 new prisoners by the year 2000.
The truth: Measure 11 added about 2,600 prisoners by 2000, largely because of judicious charging decisions by Oregon's 36 elected district attorneys. Even today only 4,000 more prisoners have been added. Read the Metro section of The Oregonian, and you'll see articles in which thugs and gang-bangers are receiving sentences of 12 to 20 years. These sentences are the result of our judges using their discretion to make Measure 11 sentences consecutive because they believe some crimes merit more than the mandatory minimum.
The doctrinaire opponents of incarceration, those who believe every prison sentence is a failure of the system, didn't prevail in last week's Democratic primary. Attorney General-elect John Kroger won a stunning victory because he had broad support, from almost every elected DA in Oregon to labor leaders and supporters of equal rights for gay people. Opponents should quit trying to repeal Measure 11 and work together with Kroger and other Oregonians to find sensible solutions to crime that offer effective treatment to those willing to accept it and incarceration to those who won't. No one is doing hard time for smoking a doobie in Oregon.
As the economy contracts and violent crime declines, there will be ever greater pressure on states to cut back on incarceration. The next great criminal justice policy debate in America will not be about the death penalty, a perennial and eternal discussion, but about sentencing policy.
Joshua Marquis is district attorney of Clatsop County and serves as a member of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.