Property crime is down in Oregon, the United States imprisons a greater percentage and number of its people than any other nation on earth (including China) and for every dollar Oregon spends on higher education, we spend $1.06 on corrections. That's almost 11 percent of the general fund.
But if Mannix and his co-sponsors on citizen's Initiative 40, Steve Beck and Duane Fletchall, have their way, we'll be spending a whole lot more – anything from $250 to $500 million more, depending whom you talk to. And the state will need three new prisons to house low-level drug dealers and perpetrators of certain property crimes.
"The dollars we're using to fund the prison system are dollars we used to use to educate our kids," said state Sen. Margaret Carter, D- Portland.
Carter looks at the already disproportionate number of Black people behind bars in this country – one in 15 – and says it's not hard to imagine how this law would exacerbate the problem.
In Oregon, 10 percent of prisoners are Black, although they constitute only 2 percent of the population.
Under Mannix's measure, a defendant convicted of most drug dealing offenses – except marijuana — would face a three-year mandatory minimum sentence. Certain property crime offenses – such as identity theft or first-degree burglary – also would put a person behind bars for three years. Other property crimes – such as motor vehicle theft, and forgery – would require jail sentences of 18 months, while people convicted of first degree theft and second degree burglary would go to jail for 14 months. The mandatory sentences would only apply to property crime offenders in the 18 and 14 month categories if they have a previous conviction. But drug offenders would get no second chance.
Legislators estimate an increase of about 6,000 prisoners in the first three years if Mannix's measure passes. And, barring a major turnaround in Oregon's justice system, African Americans will be hit hard by the new round of mandatory minimum sentences. The measure contains no new dollars for drug treatment or alternative rehabilitation programs.
"Oregon remains tragically and shamefully backwards in its approach to dealing with the administration of justice with fairness," says state Sen. Avel Gordly D-Portland. "Society fails to recognize that most people who get locked up are going to come back out into the community so the best investment we can make is in treatment for substance abuse, mental health, housing, employment and childcare (as well as others)."
In response to Mannix's proposal, the Legislature last month passed SB 1087, which will toughen sentences for certain drug and property crimes, and increase funding for drug treatment — if it is approved by voters in November.
Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, who serves on the judiciary committee, says the senate's response was necessary because many Oregonians remain concerned about property crime, no matter that rates have fallen.
At an estimated cost of $140 million, the legislator's ballot proposal will cost less, but still would increase sentences for high-level drug dealing, as well as many property crimes. It also would keep sentencing decisions public, said Rep. Chip Shields, D-Portland, while Mannix's measure would lead to more backroom deals – largely benefiting defendants with better lawyers.
"It would put an incredible amount of power in the hands of prosecutors," he said.
Defendants would have to plead a charge down with the prosecutor, Shields says, or get hit with a mandatory minimum prison term. But many people would not have that option.
Handing a low level dealer or property criminal a lengthy sentence can also be counterproductive, Shields says.
"People who could change their lives (might not be able to)," he said. "Every pro-social tie they have would be eviscerated (after a long prison stay)."
Mannix defended his measure, saying he believes in a "holistic approach" to corrections. Lack of funding for drug treatment is the Legislature's fault, he said. He also argues that cost estimates for his measure are too high.
"There has to be a sentencing component," he said. "I do want the message to get out that back alley heroin dealers, street corner meth dealers and your neighborhood dealer of cocaine … they will go to jail."
Mandatory jail sentences have drawn criticism from researchers and advocates who say they may not be the best answer for crimes largely driven by addiction.
Current research suggests mandatory minimums are largely counterproductive, said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project a nonprofit that led the fight against the crack/cocaine sentencing disparities. Long prison stays are detrimental to the health of a community, Mauer said.
"… when a low-level drug offender is sent to prison, that person's crime "potential" is removed from the community for a period of time, but so also are whatever positive connections the person has to the community," he told the International Corrections and Prison Association in Oct. 2004. "For African American children, 1 of every 14 has a parent behind bars on any given day. For these children, the experience of shame, stigma, and loss of financial and psychological support becomes a profound aspect of their life experience."
David Rodgers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice in Portland, says mandatory minimum sentencing allows for no judicial discretion.
"It doesn't matter if they're a first time offender and it's highly unlikely for them to be in again and if given the opportunity to put their life back on track (they would)," Rodgers said.
The best thing that can be said about SB 1087, says Sen. Gordly, is that it would expand drug treatment. The legislature's proposal would increase drug treatment spending by $40 million, making treatment available to a wide range of people with addiction problems, not just those convicted of drug crimes. Supporters say that since many property crimes are driven by addiction, drug treatment is a better way to cut crime than simply punishing offenders.
Charlene McGee, president of the Portland NAACP, says the civil rights group opposes Mannix's measure and will be issuing position statements closer to the general election in November.