Smarter justice

On Monday, the state Commission on Public Safety will review new data on Oregon's prison system and begin working on legislation to present to lawmakers in 2013. The commission's goal is to find ways to reduce the amount of money the state spends on prisons while improving public safety and holding criminals accountable.

That may sound like wishful thinking, but it has been done in other places, and there is reason to believe it can be done in Oregon as well.

Specific proposals have not yet been drafted, but the data analyzed so far suggests some general directions. It ought to possible to reduce prison costs without jeopardizing public safety, and without wholesale changes in sentencing rules.

The Pew Center on the States is assisting the commission through a program of the U.S. Justice Department designed to encourage bipartisan study of criminal justice and a more efficient use of public dollars. Pew's findings shed some light on Oregon's system. Among those findings:

  • Oregon imprisons a smaller proportion of its residents than the national average, but that rate has increased 18 percent since 2000, while the national rate has increased only 5 percent.
  • Among the 4,836 people sent to prison in 2011, those whose probation was revoked for technical reasons (not because they committed a new crime) increased 27 percent over 2000.
  • Those technical offenders are spending 20 percent longer behind bars than in 2000. Drug offenders also are spending significantly more time in prison.
  • If current trends continue, Oregon is projected to need 2,000 more prison beds in the next 10 years.

The commission's chairman, Supreme Court Justice Paul DeMuniz, says the commission intends to recommend changes that stop short of a complete overhaul of sentencing in the state. At the same time, he notes that Oregon is spending less on community corrections at the local level — efforts that have been shown to reduce recidivism and make communities safer.

What Oregonians should prepare for is not spending more money on the corrections system, but shifting some of that spending from building and operating prisons to local programs that keep offenders out of prison while preventing them from committing new crimes.

That doesn't mean taking it easy on dangerous criminals. It means using limited public resources in the most efficient way possible.

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