It seems just about anybody who is elected (to just about any office) vows to be “tough on crime.”
But the lousy economy and the reduction in tax revenue is now conflicting politicians. Being tough on crime means spending money — money state governments do not have.
Oregon lawmakers will consider reducing prison sentences. New prison space will be needed in Oregon to accommodate the rising prison population, which is projected to grow by 2,300 inmates over the next decade if no changes are made to sentencing.
Law enforcement officials across Oregon are not pleased rolling back prison time is even being considered. That’s hardly a surprise as this reaction is universal among police and prosecutors. It’s occurred in Washington state over the years when sentences have been reduced for non-violent offenses.
The reality, however, is the approach does save taxpayers money if the sentencing decisions are carefully targeted.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber created a commission to propose mandatory-minimum sentences. The Commission on Public Safety has come up with a proposal to cut sentences so the prison population would remain constant over 10 years at 14,600.
The proposal includes making changes to Measure 11, eliminating or modifying mandatory minimums for second-degree robbery, second-degree assault and first-degree sex abuse. Judges would be given more flexibility to set sentences.
It would modify Measure 57 to reduce the minimum sentence for some property and drug crimes and leave the decision to a judge. It also calls for increasing the maximum amount of “earned time” for which inmates can qualify from 20 percent of their sentence to 30 percent.
“I look forward to a robust discussion with the Legislature over practical solutions that protect public safety and achieve the corrections savings and reinvestments outlined in my budget,” Kitzhaber said.
These and the other changes, given the fiscal reality facing Oregon, have merit and should be considered.
This reality will be difficult for all lawmakers to accept, but particularly tough on budget hawks who call for hammering all felons with long prison sentences. They can’t have it both ways anymore. Something has got to give.
Putting more sentencing decisions in the hands of judges, who are expected to have good judgement, is a reasonable alternative to mandatory sentencing.