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Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 14 May 2012

Gov. Kitzhaber has expanded Oregon's Commission on Public Safety so it can take a deeper look at how to reduce costs in the Criminal Justice system, while at the same time improving public safety.

"With Oregon's biennial corrections budget now exceeding $1.4 billion, we can no longer delay improvements to our corrections system here in Oregon," said Governor Kitzhaber. "It's time for us to re-examine which policies are working and fix those that are not providing a clear benefit to our public safety."

Kitzhaber signed an executive order, Monday May 14, expanding the commission from seven to 12 members. The five new members are: a District Attorney; a Criminal Defense Attorney, a law enforcement representative chosen by sheriffs and chiefs of police; a community corrections representative and a senior judge.

"The state is on an unsustainable path of corrections growth that will limit funding available for proven crime-prevention, reformation and re-entry strategies," the order says.

Crime in Oregon is at a 30-year low, but a new opinion poll, released today by the PEW Center for the States, shows that more than two-thirds of Oregonians don't know this. The study showed 40 percent of voters think crime has increased and 28 percent think it's about the same. Only 19 percent of voters knew the correct answer – that both violent and property crimes have been dropping for decades.

Crime has been dropping across the country and initiatives are underway to reduce the numbers of people in jail, in favor of community based crime prevention. New York state, for example, has closed 18 youth prisons.

Brian Stimson, former reporter with the Skanner News reported this mismatch between reality and public perception last year. And in the groundbreaking 2010 book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," Michelle Alexander documents her growing belief that the criminal justice system has become, "a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."

The commission will now work with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project, to bring together a wide range of people – including crime victims groups—and come up with policy solutions for 2013.

The poll shows Oregonians now supporting reforms that cut corrections costs, and potentially, prison time, if they can also be shown to improve outcomes.

Close to 90 percent of voters polled agreed with the statement:

"Prisons are a government spending program, and just like any other government spending program they need to be put to the cost-benefit test to make sure taxpayers are getting the best bang for the buck."

And 87 percent agreed that:

"It does not matter whether an offender is in prison for 10 or 15 or 21 months. What really matters is that the system does a better job of making sure that when an offender does get out, he is less likely to commit another crime."

The poll lists differences in responses from voters by political affiliation and by whether their households are affiliated with law enforcement or with victims of violent or nonviolent crimes. Across all groups, there was widespread support for increasing community supervision of offenders when they are released even if that means shorter sentences.

For example, 82 percent of all voters, and 83 percent of voters affiliated with victims of violent crime, agreed with the statement:

"I would support shorter prison sentences for offenders if that permitted the state to pay for a stronger probation and parole system, including swifter penalties for breaking the rules of supervision and more substance abuse and mental health treatment."

The poll also looked at whether judges should have more discretion in sentencing and whether the parole board should be able to keep high risk offenders longer, while releasing low-risk offenders earlier.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle say reform is needed to cut costs. Last February, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), Co-Speaker Bruce Hanna (R-Roseburg) and Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) wrote a letter to Governor Kitzhaber expressing support for continuing work begun by the Commission on Public Safety.

Sen. Jackie Winters

"Relying on incarceration alone is unsustainable. Oregon needs to make the most of all the tools available to us," said Senator Jackie Winters (R-Salem).

"Keeping the public safe will always remain our number 1 priority, but we must create a more efficient system — one that keeps our communities safe, saves taxpayers' money and provides better outcomes."

Oregon has gained a reputation for progressive policies within its criminal justice. But reformers say that more needs to be done.

"Oregon has been in the forefront of criminal justice policy matters for many years and done a lot of things right that other states are only now discovering," said Oregon Supreme Court Justice Paul J. De Muniz. "This does not permit us to be complacent, or reluctant to pursue better results from our public safety investment utilizing proven cost effective methods to hold offenders accountable, reduce victimization, and control crime."

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