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Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 06 January 2011

The Oregon Secretary of State's Office released two audits of the state's correctional system this week. Both the Oregon Youth Authority and the Oregon Department of Corrections' Earned Time program were found to be largely following their objectives, with several problems identified by researchers.

The Oregon Youth Authority was found to be using appropriate sanctions for youth within its custody, although the audit did find some youth who were given inappropriate sanctions for their circumstances. When youth are charged with a crime and referred to the juvenile department in a county, they face a variety of different outcomes based upon their crimes and situation. A youth charged with a Measure 11 crime is automatically referred to a detention facility and will face trial in an adult court. Other youths are given a variety of sanctions, ranging from probation, detention in a facility, or rehabilitation.

The audit of the Oregon Youth Authority analyzed 3,300 placements in 36 counties around the state for youth who were placed on probation, in residential treatment centers and in Youth Correctional Facilities.

Auditors used a four-pronged system to try to explain the placement of juveniles in a detention facility – offense severity, offense history, risk to reoffend, and probation violations. The factors explained the placement of about 84 percent of juvenile detainees. In the other 16 percent of placements, auditors studied the cases to determine why those youth were placed on probation or in custody , despite national best practices suggesting that youth placed in detention actually run a greater risk of recidivating than youth placed in a community environment.

After examining 142 individual cases in 26 counties, auditors determined that the counties had used appropriate resources to detain these youth. For many (42), youth had exhibited delinquent behavior while under the supervision of a residential treatment facility; for most (51), officials determined they posed a community safety risk because of gang affiliations or aggressive behavior that was not linked to their actual offense; for others, there were past convictions or petty past convictions, that when coupled with the aggravating offense, rose to a level that warranted detention.

The audit found no difference in rural or urban counties in the sentencing of youth to probation or detention. The audit debunked the myth that youth in urban areas receive more lenient treatment than their rural counterparts.

The audit called for records to be kept and analyzed after they are expunged, to allow a more long term analysis while protecting a person's privacy. The audit also called for counties to work with the Oregon Youth Authority to better document services, treatment and probation violations.

Earned Time Program

For the most part, state auditors found that the Earned Time program is working as it is designed – it provides qualified inmates the opportunity to reduce their sentences and redacts any earned time if an offender exhibits bad behavior before their release date. The audit did find several cases where the Department of Corrections allowed the early release of offenders despite offenses that would normally change the release date. They also found that some inmates assigned to rehabilitation programs has not been, with no explanation given.

The DOC says that certain inmates scheduled for early release that had violated prison rules are sometimes cleared for release because it would undermine efforts to secure housing, work and rehabilitation, factors that are important to reduce the chance an offender recidivates.  

There was a similar problem with prisoners who were put into segregation. For some, it meant retracting their earned time. For others, it had no effect. Some other states were studied and found to have explicit rules for the amount of segregation time was allowed before earned time was disallowed.

Auditors recommend that administrative rules be revised to consistently address inmate accountability in the four months prior to release.

Researchers were not able to determine what effect the Earned Time has overall on recidivism in Oregon. In Washington and other states, other studies have found that earned time programs have a positive influence on an ex-offenders ability to stay out of prison.

One study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found no difference on recidivism when grouping offenders by their length of incarceration. The study had one exception: those offenders jailed for more than 60 months.

Another study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that incarceration's affect on recidivism is "offender specific."

One benefit that comes with earned time programs is cost. The Oregon Department of Corrections saved at least $25 million in fiscal year 2009.


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