SALEM – A business group floated a plan this week aimed at protecting school funding by suspending implementation of a get-tough-on-crime measure endorsed by Oregon voters last fall.
It’s a politically charged proposal, though. Opponents say it would thwart the will of voters who approved Measure 57 to lengthen prison sentences for repeat property and drug crimes and mandate drug and alcohol treatment for certain offenders.
However, the idea is gaining some traction at the Capitol as lawmakers and Gov. Ted Kulongoski struggle to find ways to pay for key services at a time of shrinking state revenue and an increasing prison population.
The Oregon Business Association’s Ryan Deckert appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to urge lawmakers to set Measure 57 aside at least for the next two years. That could save $75 million and free up the money for other programs, he said.
“If we want to set a floor for education funding, then we have to be willing to take on issues such as Measure 57,” Deckert, a former state lawmaker, said in an interview.
Deckert is among those who think a series of tough sentencing laws and other measures adopted by voters over the years has left the state spending a disproportionate amount on prisons – at the expense of education, human services and other programs.
Lawmakers have been reluctant to override the decisions of voters, but these are especially tough times in terms of the state budget. The next state revenue forecast, due May 15, is expected to show the state facing a shortfall of $4 billion or more.
That’s why the notion of suspending Measure 57 has gotten as far as it has.
Kevin Neely, spokesman for the Oregon District Attorneys Association, said local prosecutors aren’t wild about suspending something adopted by voters just last November. But he said that depending on how it’s written, district attorneys could sign off on the plan that’s aimed at cutting the $1.5 billion prison budget for the coming two years.
“There’s no question that Measure 57 is good public policy. But the budget situation has changed since it was approved in the November election,” Neely said.
In fact, the district attorneys have also suggested that lawmakers consider, as a one-time cost-cutting step, some form of early release for certain nonviolent offenders. He said, however, that such a proposal would be no panacea for budget problems.
“Releasing offenders is a complicated notion. There aren’t a large number of low-risk offenders that could be immediately released,” he said.
The gloomy economic climate at the 2009 Legislature would seem to provide an effective backdrop for critics of Oregon’s get-tough-on-crime policies to argue that the state no longer can afford to spend so much money on incarcerating prisoners.
State Rep. Chip Shields, who’s been a leading critic of the Measure 11 mandatory sentencing law passed by voters in 1994, said he’s hoping this session can take some steps to restore more “balance” to the public safety system to put more emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention.
Shields said, though, that the dire fiscal situation has many lawmakers focused on balancing the next two-year budget and trying to protect key state services from damaging cuts.
“It’s going to be a challenge to get people to focus on the long-term issues around public safety, and not just the short-term” budget crunch, the Portland Democrat said.
Kevin Mannix, the former lawmaker and Salem attorney who has sponsored various get-tough-on-crime initiatives over the years, said lawmakers should leave Measure 57 alone and find other ways to balance the state prison budget.
“I know they are in tough times. But it will be a violation of the public trust for them to fail to implement Measure 57,” said Mannix, who was the sponsor of a more expensive and stringent alternative that was voted down.