Oregon lawmakers seek backing for sentencing bill

SALEM — Oregon lawmakers who want to loosen criminal sentencing laws are working to gain the support of police chiefs and sheriffs.

The Joint Public Safety Committee this week unveiled their latest plan, which would relax sentences for certain property and drug crimes established by Measure 57 in 2008. It also would lower penalties for some marijuana and driving-while-suspended charges.

The new plan drops an earlier proposal to throw out mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent crimes under Measure 11, a 1994 voter-approved initiative.

While most of the deal-making is happening behind closed doors, lawmakers pushing the plan have said they want local law enforcement officials on board. The measure could undergo further revisions as lawmakers continue negotiating with law enforcement representatives, said Rep. Chris Garrett, a Lake Oswego Democrat working on the bill.

"We expect to move a bill that has the support of the chiefs and the sheriffs," Garrett said.

Calls to Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and Oregon State Sheriffs' Association were not returned.

If the new plan moves forward, it will do so without the support of the state's top prosecutors.

Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote said he strongly opposes the proposal, especially the changes it makes to property crime sentences.

Foote said the proposed bill would keep career property criminals out of prison.

"That, we believe, is an enormous mistake," Foote said, speaking on behalf of the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

Foote put forward an alternative proposal, but he said the district attorneys are no longer participating in talks with lawmakers. In addition to Measure 57 changes, the proposal would expand earned time for inmates, which shortens prison sentences for offenders who display good behavior and participate in treatment programs. It also would provide more money for community corrections programs, and set up an incentive-based funding program for counties that keep people out of prison.

The legislation builds on a 2012 report by the governor's Commission on Public Safety that found the state's growing prison population unsustainable in the long term.

Without legislative intervention, the report found, Oregon would need to build about 2,000 additional prison beds over the next decade.

Gov. John Kitzhaber turned to the Legislature to find a solution that caps the inmate population at 14,600, and averts an estimated $600 million in prison costs. As of May 1, Oregon's inmate population is 14,400.

"For the governor, this has never been a debate about ballot measures or a single approach," said Tim Raphael, a spokesman for Kitzhaber. "The Legislature is working its way toward a solution that bends down the cost curve on corrections, keeps the public safe and reinvests in community corrections programs that will help avoid the need to build expensive, new state prisons."

Garrett, the Representative from Lake Oswego, said the committee's plan would achieve the governor's goal.

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