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October 3, 2010

"It's time for Oregon to get smart on crime"

The title of this post is the headline on this lengthy and effective commentary authored by John Tapogna, who is president of an Oregon-based economic consulting firm and a former analyst for the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. Here are excerpts:

As the ballots hit our mailboxes this month, we'll discover a tempting offer. For $30 million a year when fully implemented, Measure 73 promises to lock up repeat sex offenders and repeat drunken drivers longer.  Two groups who don't elicit, or deserve, any sympathy.  Conventional wisdom suggests the measure will pass.  Easily.

And if it does, we will have reaffirmed our conflicting preferences for low taxes and long prison sentences.  Through voter-approved property tax limitations and kicker laws, Oregon's tax revenues as a share of the economy have declined.  And they'll remain below levels of the late 1980s despite last year's income tax hikes.  Meanwhile, we've approved mandatory minimum prison sentences for an expanding list of crimes.  Measure 73 would add a few more.

Back in the 1990s when Oregon's economy was hot, we pulled off the trick of cutting taxes while also building prisons.  But we're in different times.  As federal stimulus fades and the economy sputters, the next governor will inherit a multibillion-dollar state budget shortfall that seemingly deepens with every revenue forecast.  Successfully navigate that immediate challenge, and the rest of the decade delivers a projected 46 percent increase in elderly baby boomers who will drive up public spending on health care and pensions.  And those well-educated boomers will take their degrees into retirement and leave a less-prepared work force in their wake.

This one-two punch -- a weak economic recovery followed by a demographic tsunami -- demands that government re-engineer every service it offers. The corrections system is no exception. We spent two decades getting tough on crime. Now it's time to get smart.

In recent years, numerous states have jumped ahead of Oregon, modernized their sentencing guidelines and dialed back prison spending.  By doing so, they made space in their collapsing budgets for investments with stronger economic returns -- especially education.  So will Oregon follow the lead of these innovative states?... 

In 1989, the Legislature worked with judges, developed sentencing guidelines for convicted felons and agreed to increase corrections spending. The inmate population edged up in the early 1990s.

But the prison-building boom didn't really take off until voters approved Measure 11 in 1994.  The citizens' initiative created mandatory minimum sentences for 16 crimes and, during the subsequent decade, the inmate population doubled from 6,000 to 12,000. Today it's at 14,000 and headed to 16,000 by 2020....

Incarceration will always be a critical tool in crime prevention, but it's an expensive one. And with the average cost per inmate at $82 daily, prisons have hit the law of diminishing returns.  When voters passed Measure 11 in 1994, each $1 of prison spending yielded an average $2.78 in benefits -- prevented pain, suffering and losses associated with crime. But as we have cast prison's net wider, and caught less serious offenders in it, the benefits have declined to 91 cents for every dollar spent.

Long ago, we may have been so flush with cash that we could overlook negative returns on our public investments.  But we're not flush anymore, and we won't be anytime soon. So now's the time to ask: How do we stay tough on crime in an era of scarcity?

And the answer is: Be more like Texas.  Never accused of being softies, the 2007 Texas Legislature halted a half-billion-dollar prison construction effort and boosted investments in a cost-effective network of residential and community-based treatment and supervision programs.  Rather than grow by a projected 17,000 inmates over the next five years, Texas' prison population has started to decline.

Texas is not the lone reformer. California and Illinois have designed performance rewards for counties that keep probationers out of prison. Mississippi and Nevada rolled back sentences for nonviolent offenders who successfully complete drug treatment and vocational training programs. And Hawaii has coupled random drug tests with short jail stays to reduce parole violations and prison sentences.

Innovation is spreading and -- for the first time in 38 years -- the inmate population in America's prisons fell in 2009.  Twenty-six states registered declines.  Oregon was not among them.

But there is hope.... With a goal of getting smarter on crime, Gov. Ted Kulongoski's recently convened Reset Cabinet investigated best practices across the United States, surveyed hundreds of judges and public safety experts, and developed a list of sentencing reforms. The report's recommendations were built on a philosophy that costly prison beds should be reserved for violent offenders and those convicted of person-to-person crimes. The report also suggested that Measure 11's mandatory minimum sentences should be targeted more narrowly to crimes involving death, serious physical injury or sexual contact with the victim. Implemented competently, the Reset blueprint would save hundreds of millions of dollars over the decade with no appreciable change in crime....

We're in the middle of a long, slow march out of tough economic times, and we can't afford missteps. If we can't muster the smarts and courage to slow spending on public investments that yield negative returns, this decade's outlook for education -- and our economy -- is bleak.

October 3, 2010 at 09:34 AM | Permalink


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Chart in the article: Prisons Boom As Crime Ebbs.

That means what, if true?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 3, 2010 10:48:48 AM


Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Oct 3, 2010 12:37:25 PM

I was speaking with a small independent business man last week. He has a construction company and is having a very hard time hiring new workers because none of them can pass a back ground check.

I said that I didn't think that was surprising since three out of every 100 are either in jail, on probation or parole. His response was that in his business it seemed more like one out of every two. No doubt that is true.

Posted by: beth | Oct 3, 2010 6:48:36 PM

That is a well thought out article based on facts, and reasoning. Until, he gets to the last few sentences, "based on death, serious physical injury, or sexual contact." What our laws call sexual contact cannot be compared to death, or even serious physical injury. Why did a writer who is cabable of reasoning, and converting knowledge to the written word, all of a sudden loose his ability to think? What our laws call "sexual contact" can be only being accused by a young female of touching her in an unwanted place, no proof, just her accusation. The article is still good, but the insanity, the witch hunt, the unfair laws to young men, ?? I think that the men accused of "touching" have to be the scape goats so that our prisons can be reduced. Yes, the drug laws need to be revised, but something certainly needs to be done about the havoc that is being wreaked in America by accusations against men and the prosecutors and the JURIES that are hysterical.

Posted by: DLJ | Oct 3, 2010 7:03:30 PM

beth --

If three out of a hundred are on parole, probation or in jail, that means ninety-seven out of a hundred are available.

But it makes no difference anyway. A background check merely provides information. Your construction friend can then decide for himself whom he wants to hire. If he wants to assume such risk as he may think there to be, that's up to him; the state isn't stopping him. If, on the other hand, the information persuades him that it would be imprudent to hire someone, then he's better off having that information than being in the dark.

Either way, it's only information. Information does not make hiring decisions; bosses do.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 3, 2010 7:51:05 PM


I understand that, but some jobs do indeed require more require more scrutiny of an employee's background. You say that the state isn't stopping him - actually government contracts are the most demanding in this area. I know this seems impossible to you, but in the industry it is a problem.

Posted by: beth | Oct 3, 2010 9:34:43 PM

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