Thursday, July 8, 2010

Apocalypse Now: Oregon's Impending Budget Doom

Fewer teachers, or fewer prisons?  Paying more for health care, or locking fewer people up?  The choices are truly that stark for voters in Oregon this year, as this effective op-ed from The Oregonian shows.

Oregon's in a budget bind.  Back in September 2009, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski created a Reset Cabinet to review the state's "unsustainable" costs of providing services to Oregonians.  In May, the Reset Cabinet released the "Reset" report, basically telling Oregon to "rethink and refocus our priorities" -- or else.  While not quite rising to the level of "It's the end of the world!", the Reset report is pretty darn grim. 

One of the four horsemen of Oregon's coming budget apocalypse is public safety, which eats up 16% of Oregon's cash each year.  Back in 1994, Oregon voters passed a slew of mandatory minimum laws -- and now they're paying for it, big time:

After years of little growth in prison capacity, tougher sentencing laws for violent criminals enacted by Measure 11 (1994) required the state to build more facilities and hire more staff in order to send more criminals to prison for longer periods of time. This squeezed funding for other programs, even within the public safety area. The Oregon State Police (OSP) suffered staffing reductions from the 1980s through the middle of this decade. Also, in response to the economic downturn experienced in 2002-03, courts were forced to close one day a week.
Still, shares of the public’s tax dollars and the state’s general fund expenditures for public safety programs have increased significantly over the past two decades, primarily because of the construction and operation of new prisons. State prisons housed 5,841 prisoners in 1990, compared to 14,000 today
So, in short, more mandatory minimums has meant fewer cops and closed courts.  How on earth does that increase public safety?

And things are only expected to get worse, according to the report:
In 2008, the voters approved the legislative referral of Measure 57, which increased sentences for persons convicted of repeat property crimes and required drug and alcohol treatment for addicted offenders at high risk of committing new crimes in the future. Portions of this measure were suspended by the legislature in 2009 due to budget constraints, but these provisions are scheduled to come back into effect in 2012.

Oregon’s prison population is expected to increase from 14,000 to 16,000 during the next decade, absent any changes in sentencing laws and practices.
I can hear the naysayers now:  "But surely, giving people mandatory minimums has reduced crime -- so it's worth the costs!"  The op-ed from The Oregonian doesn't disagree, but cites this devastating fact:
The Reset report notes that crime is down not just in Oregon, but also in states that haven't embraced mandatory minimum sentences
Ouch.  Okay, Oregon voters, it's up to you:
So, are you willing to see more non-violent offenders diverted away from prison and into local programs that emphasize drug and alcohol treatment, rehabilitation and job training? Or are you ready to double down, and vote for longer mandatory sentences for sex offenders and repeat drunk drivers, two measures expected on the November ballot?
Pick your poison, Oregonians.  We encourage you to take the route other states have taken, and reject more mandatory minimums.  It sounds like your survival depends on it.