Will the Legislature protect women in danger?

A woman is threatened with violence, victimized during a sexual assault, or pursued by a stalker. She needs a safe place to go, with trained staff that can help her. But, due to budget cuts that place in her community is closed or already full. She has nowhere to turn for help.

This scene is being repeated dozens of times every day across Oregon. But it doesn't have to be this way if the state legislature acts now.

Money that could be used to protect women in our communities has been slashed because state spending on prison expansion continues to soar. Oregon's prison population has grown by nearly 50 percent during the past decade — more than three times faster than the national average. Additional prison growth, composed mostly of nonviolent offenders, is projected to cost taxpayers an additional $600 million in the next 10 years.

This huge prison growth comes despite years of research showing that many offenders can be held accountable at less cost and with better results. States across the country are using programs such as stricter probation and parole supervision, drug and alcohol treatment, better preparation for re-entry into society, and mental health counseling to cut costs and cut crime.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, ineffective and costly prison expansion is swallowing up funding for programs that are proven to keep women safe. Research shows that victims who maintain contact with trained advocates six to eight hours a week for 10 weeks are less likely to return to their abusers, less likely to be assaulted again and more likely to be able to restart life on their own terms.

The three of us run centers that serve thousands of survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in two rural counties in Southern Oregon. More and more women are coming to us for help, while we have fewer resources to provide a safe space and support for them. Reduced hours of service have left survivors camping outside our centers, waiting for help because they're too scared to call 911.

In 2012, the Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance saw a 29 percent increase in requests for services while taking an 80 percent reduction in our budget. As a result, the Alliance has been forced to reduce staff to two part-time positions. We had to cut the advocacy center from five days a week to three, leaving a gaping hole in service for women in crisis.

The outlook is no better for the Klamath Crisis Center. Because of budget cuts, our agency will have to eliminate half of our 16 shelter beds on July 1. We'll also be forced to cut walk-in support services, which help women find support groups and legal services.

Victims in our community know their options are limited. Many women simply stay with their abusers rather than take a chance on hitchhiking into town and finding no help at the end of the trail.

There is a better way.

The Legislature can pass a package of reforms known as House Bill 3194. It would curb the rapid growth of state prisons and reinvest savings into local programs proven to reduce crime and protect victims. The savings would translate into real money for Klamath and Josephine Counties. Klamath and Josephine each could receive as much as 26 percent more funding for local public safety efforts including community corrections, law enforcement and victim's services. Funds like these would help both of our centers provide the critical services that protect the women in our communities.

HB 3194 is a meaningful step in the right direction to prevent crime and hold offenders accountable in the most effective and least costly way. The reforms represent modest changes to Oregon's sentencing laws, and reinforce the state's commitment to focusing prison beds on serious violent criminals. This translates into increased public safety by freeing up dollars for those programs that we've seen — first hand — deliver real results for our communities.

We urge our state representatives and senators to pass this reform package and extend a critical lifeline to women in danger.

Christine Mallette is executive director of the Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance. Wanda Powless is executive director of the Klamath Crisis Center. Krisanna Albrecht is executive director of the Women's Crisis Support Team in Josephine County.

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